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کتاب: هیچی نیس، آرام باش / فصل 12

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PART III

Return

People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

—JAMES BALDWIN

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield

EVERY TIME she gets into her mail truck Opal does the same thing. She looks into the rearview and finds her gaze looking back at her through the years. She doesn’t like to think of the number of years she’s been working as a mail carrier for the USPS. Not that she doesn’t like the work. It’s that it’s hard to see the years on her face, the lines and wrinkles that surround her eyes, branch out like cracks in the concrete. But even though she hates to see her face, she’s never been able to stop the habit of looking at it when she finds a mirror there in front of her, where she catches one of the only versions of her face she’ll ever see—on top of glass.

Opal thinks as she drives of the first time she took the Red Feather boys in for a weekend at the beginning of the adoption process. They were at a Mervyn’s in Alameda for new clothes. Opal looked at Orvil in the mirror, at an outfit she’d picked out for him.

“You like it?” she said.

“What about them?” Orvil said, pointing at himself and Opal’s reflection in the mirror. “How do we know it’s not one of them doing it and not us copying?”

“Because look, I’m deciding to wave my hand in front of it right now,” Opal said, and waved. It was a three-panel mirror outside the dressing room. Loother and Lony were hiding inside a clothes rack nearby.

“She could have waved first, then you couldn’t help but copy. But look at this,” he said, and then he broke out into a wild dance. Arms flailing, he jumped and spun. It looked to Opal like he was powwow dancing. But he couldn’t have been. He was just trying to act crazy in front of the mirror to prove no one else was in control but him, the Orvil on this side of the mirror.

Opal is on her route. Same old same old one. But she’s paying attention to where she steps. Opal doesn’t step on cracks when she walks. She walks carefully because she’s always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. It’s a secret she holds so tight to her chest she never notices it. She lives by it, like breathing. Opal drops mail in slots and in boxes trying to remember which spoon she’d eaten with earlier. She has lucky and unlucky spoons. In order for the lucky ones to work, you have to keep the unlucky ones with them, and you can’t look to see what you’re getting when you pull one out of the drawer. Her luckiest spoon is one with a floral pattern that runs up the handle to the neck.

She knocks on wood to cancel out something she’s said she wants or doesn’t want to happen, or even if she just thinks it, she’ll find wood and knock on it twice. Opal likes numbers. Numbers are consistent. You can count on them. But for Opal, certain numbers are good and others are bad. Even numbers are generally better than odd ones, and numbers that have some kind of mathematical relationship are good too. She reduces addresses to a single number by adding them together, then judges the neighbors based on their reduced number. Numbers don’t lie. Four and eight are her favorites. Three and six are no good. She delivers mail on the odd side first, always having believed it’s best to get the bad out of the way before getting to the good.

Bad luck or just bad sh@t happening to you in life can make you secretly superstitious, can make you want to take some control or take back some sense of control. Opal buys scratchers and lottery tickets when the jackpot gets high enough. Her superstition is one she would never call superstition for fear it would lose its power.

Opal is done with the odd side of the street. When she crosses, a car stops for her—the woman inside impatiently waves Opal across like she’s doing all of humanity a favor. Opal wants to lift her arm, lift a single finger as she crosses, but instead she slow jogs across in answer to the woman’s impatience and feigned generosity. Opal hates herself for the jog. For the smile that came to her face before she could stop it, turn it upside down, straighten it out before it was too late.

Opal is full of regrets, but not about things she’s done. That damn island, her mom, Ronald, and then the shuffling, stifling rooms and faces in foster care, in group homes after that. She regrets that they happened. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t cause them to happen. She figures she must deserve it in some way. But she couldn’t figure it out. So she bore those years, their weight, and the years bored a hole through the middle of her, where she tried to keep believing there was some reason to keep her love intact. Opal is stone solid, but there is troubled water that lives in her, that sometimes threatens to flood, to drown her—rise up to her eyes. Sometimes she can’t move. Sometimes it feels impossible to do anything. But that’s okay because she’s become quite good at getting lost in the doing of things. More than one thing at a time preferably. Like delivering mail and listening to an audiobook or music. The trick is to stay busy, distract then distract the distraction. Get twice removed. It’s about layers. It’s about disappearing in the whir of noise and doing.

Opal takes out her earphones when she hears a sound up above somewhere. A nasty buzz slicing through the air. She looks up and sees a drone, then looks around to see who might be flying it. When she doesn’t see anyone, she puts her earphones back in. She’s listening to Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” It’s her least-favorite Otis Redding song because it gets played too much. She shuffles her music and it lands on Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” This song gives her that strange mix of sad and happy. Plus it’s upbeat. That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.

Opal was on her route yesterday when her adopted grandson Orvil left her a message telling her he’d pulled three spider legs out of a bump on his leg. He’d scratched it open and out came those spider legs like splinters. Opal covered her mouth as she listened to the message, but she wasn’t surprised, not as much as she would have been had this not happened to her when she was around the same age Orvil is now.

Opal and Jacquie’s mom never let them kill a spider if they found one in the house, or anywhere for that matter. Her mom said spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap. She said that’s what we are. Home and trap.

When the spider legs didn’t come up at dinner last night, Opal figured Orvil was afraid to bring it up because of the powwow—even though the two things had nothing to do with each other.

A few weeks back she found a video of Orvil powwow dancing in his room. Opal regularly checks their phones while they sleep. She looks at what pictures and videos they take, their text messages, and their browser histories. None of them have shown signs of especially worrisome depravity yet. But it’s only a matter of time. Opal believes there is a dark curiosity alive in each of us. She believes we all do precisely what we think we can get away with. The way Opal sees it, privacy is for adults. You keep a close eye on your kids, you keep them in line.

In the video, Orvil was powwow dancing like he knew exactly what he was doing, which she couldn’t understand. He was dancing in the regalia she kept in her closet. The regalia was given to her by an old friend.

There were all kinds of programs and events for Native youth growing up in Oakland. Opal first met Lucas at a group home, and then again later at a foster-youth event. For a time, Opal and Lucas were model foster youth, always the first chosen for interviews and photos for flyers. They’d both learned from an elder what goes into making regalia, then helped her make it. Opal helped Lucas prepare for his first powwow as a dancer. Lucas and Opal had been in love. Their love was young and desperate. But it was love. Then one day Lucas got on a bus and moved down to Los Angeles. He’d never even talked about it. He just left. Came back almost two decades later out of nowhere wanting an interview for an Urban Indian documentary he was making and gave her the regalia. Then he died a few weeks later. Called Opal from his sister’s house to tell her his days were numbered. That’s how he put it. He didn’t even tell her why, he just said sorry, and that he wished her the very best.

But last night dinner was quiet. Dinner was never quiet. The boys left the table in the same suspicious silence. Opal called Lony back. She would ask him how their day went—Lony couldn’t lie. She’d ask him how he liked his new bike. Plus it was his turn to do the dishes. But Orvil and Loother did something they’d never done before. They helped their little brother dry and put away the dishes. Opal didn’t want to force the issue. She really didn’t know what to say about it. It was like something was stuck in her throat. It wouldn’t come back up and it wouldn’t go down. Actually it was like the bump in her leg the spider legs had come out of. The bump had never gone away. Were there more legs in there? Was that the spider’s body? Opal had stopped asking questions a long time ago. The bump remained.

When she went to tell the boys to go to bed, she heard one of them shush the other two.

“What’s that?” she said.

“Nothing, Grandma,” Loother said.

“Don’t ‘nothing, Grandma’ me,” she said.

“It’s nothing,” Orvil said.

“Go to sleep,” she said. The boys are afraid of Opal, like she was always afraid of her mom. Something about how brief and direct she is. Maybe hypercritical too, like her mom was hypercritical. It’s to prepare them for a world made for Native people not to live but to die in, shrink, disappear. She needs to push them harder because it will take more for them to succeed than someone who is not Native. It’s because she failed to do anything more than disappear herself. She’s no-nonsense with them because she believes life will do its best to get at you. Sneak up from behind and shatter you into tiny unrecognizable pieces. You have to be ready to pick everything up pragmatically, keep your head down and make it work. Death alone eludes hard work and hardheadedness. That and memory. But there’s no time and no good reason most of the time to look back. Leave them alone and memories blur into summary. Opal preferred to keep them there as just that. That’s why these damn spider legs have her stuck on the problem. They’re making her look back.

Opal pulled three spider legs out of her leg the Sunday afternoon before she and Jacquie left the home, the house, the man they’d been left with after their mom left this world. There’d recently been blood from her first moon. Both the menstrual blood and the spider legs had made her feel the same kind of shame. Something was in her that came out, that seemed so creaturely, so grotesque yet magical, that the only readily available emotion she had for both occasions was shame, which led to secrecy in both cases. Secrets lie through omission just like shame lies through secrecy. She could have told Jacquie about either the legs or the bleeding. But Jacquie was pregnant, was not bleeding anymore, was growing limbs inside her they’d agreed she would keep, a child she would give up for adoption when the time came. But the legs and the blood all ended up meaning so much more.

The man their mom left them with, this Ronald, he’d been taking them to ceremony, telling them it was the only way they would heal from the loss of their mother. All while Jacquie was secretly becoming a mother. And Opal was secretly becoming a woman.

But Ronald started to walk by their room at night. Then he took to standing in their doorway—a shadow framed by the door and the light behind him. On a ride home from ceremony she remembered Ronald mentioning something to them about doing a dream ceremony. Opal didn’t like the sound of it. She took to keeping a bat she’d found in their bedroom closet when they first moved in by her side, next to her in bed, had taken to holding the thing like she’d once held Two Shoes for comfort. But where Two Shoes was all talk and no action, the bat, which had written on its butt-end the name Storey, was all action.

Jacquie had always slept hard as night stays until morning comes. One night Ronald went over to the end of her bed—a mattress on the floor. Opal had the mattress across from her. When she saw Ronald pull at Jacquie’s ankles, she didn’t even have to think. She’d never swung the bat before, but she knew its weight and how to swing it. Ronald was on his knees about to pull Jacquie up to him. Opal got up as quiet as she could, breathed in slow, then raised the bat up high behind her. She came down as hard as she could on top of Ronald’s head. There was a deep, muffled crack, and Ronald landed on top of Jacquie—who woke up and saw her sister standing over them with the bat. They packed their duffel bags as fast as they could, then went downstairs. On the way through the living room, there on the TV was that test-pattern Indian they’d seen a thousand times before. But it was like Opal was seeing him for the first time. Opal imagined the Indian turning to her. He was saying: Go. Then the sound of him saying Go went on too long and turned into the test tone coming from the TV. Jacquie grabbed Opal’s hand and led her out of the house. Opal still had the bat in her hand.

After they left Ronald’s they went to a shelter their mom had always taken them to when they needed help or were between houses. They met with a social worker who asked where they’d been but didn’t push when they didn’t tell her.

Opal carried the weight of Ronald’s possible death around with her for a year. She was scared to go back and check. She was afraid that it didn’t bother her that he was dead. That she killed him. She didn’t want to go and find out if he was still alive. But she didn’t really want to have killed him either. It was easier to let him stay maybe dead. Possibly dead.

A year later Jacquie was gone from Opal’s life. Opal didn’t know where. The last time she’d seen her, Jacquie was getting arrested for what reason Opal couldn’t tell. Losing Jacquie into the system was just another sh@tty loss among Opal’s many. But she’d met an Indian boy her age, and he made sense to Opal, he wasn’t weird or dark, or he was, but in the same ways Opal was. Plus he never talked about where he came from or what happened to him. They shared that omission like soldiers back from war, all the way up until an afternoon Opal and Lucas were hanging out at the Indian Center, waiting for people to show up for a community meal. Lucas was talking about how much he hated McDonald’s.

“But it tastes so good,” Opal said.

“It’s not real food,” Lucas said as he balanced and walked back and forth on the curb outside.

“It’s real if I can chew it up and see it come out the other side,” Opal said.

“Gross,” Lucas said.

“Wouldn’t have been gross if you’d have said it. Girls aren’t allowed to talk about farts or poop or curse or—”

“I could swallow pennies and poop them out, that doesn’t make them food,” Lucas said.

“Who told you it’s not real?” Opal said.

“I had half a cheeseburger I forgot was in my backpack for like a month. When I found it, it looked and smelled exactly the same as when I left it. Real food spoils,” Lucas said.

“Beef jerky doesn’t spoil,” Opal said.

“Okay, Ronald,” Lucas said.

“What’d you say?” Opal said, and she felt a hot sadness rise up to her eyes from her neck.

“I called you Ronald,” Lucas said, and stopped walking back and forth on the curb’s edge. “As in, Ronald McDonald.” He put his hand on Opal’s shoulder and lowered his head a little to try to catch her eyes. Opal pulled her shoulder away. Her face went white.

“What? I’m sorry, geez. I’m joking. If you wanna know what’s funny, I ate that cheeseburger, okay?” Lucas said. Opal walked back inside and sat down on a folding chair. Lucas followed her in and pulled up a chair next to her. After some coaxing, Opal told Lucas everything. He was the first person she’d ever told, not just about Ronald but about her mom, the island, what their lives were like before that. Lucas convinced her it would eat her up eventually if she didn’t find out for sure about Ronald.

“He’s like that cheeseburger in my backpack before I ate it,” Lucas said. Opal laughed like she hadn’t laughed in a long time. A week later they were on a bus to Ronald’s house.

They waited for two hours across the street from Ronald’s house, hiding behind a mailbox. That mailbox became the only thing between finding out and not, between seeing him and not, between her and the rest of her life. She didn’t want to live, she wanted time to stop there, to keep Lucas there with her too.

Opal went cold when she saw Ronald come home in his truck. Seeing Ronald walk up the stairs to that house, Opal didn’t know if she wanted to cry from relief, immediately run away, or go after him, wrestle him to the ground, and finish him off with her bare hands once and for all. Of all that could have occurred to her, what came up in her mind was a word she’d heard her mom use. A Cheyenne word: Veho. It means spider and trickster and white man. Opal always wondered if Ronald was white. He did all kinds of Indian things, but he looked as white as any white man she’d ever seen.

When she saw his front door close behind him, it closed the door on all that had come before, and Opal was ready to leave.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“You don’t want to—”

“There’s nothing else,” she said. “Let’s go.” They walked the few miles back without saying a word to each other. Opal kept a couple of paces ahead the whole way.

Opal is large. If you want to say bone-structure-wise that’s fine, but she’s big in a bigger sense than big-bodied or bone-structure-wise. She would have to be called overweight in front of medical professionals. But she got big to avoid shrinking. She’d chosen expansion over contraction. Opal is a stone. She’s big and strong but old now and full of aches.

Here she is stepping down from her truck with a package. She leaves the box on the porch and walks back out through the gate of the front yard. There across the street from her is a brown-and-black tiger-striped pit bull baring its teeth and growling a growl so low she can feel it in her chest. The dog is collarless and time seems the same way here, time off its leash, ready to skip so fast she’ll be dead and gone before she knows it. A dog like this one has always been a possibility, just like death can show up anywhere, just like Oakland can bare its teeth suddenly and scare the sh@t out of you. But it’s not just poor old Opal anymore, it’s what would become of the boys if she were gone.

Opal hears a man’s voice boom from down the street some name she can’t understand. The dog flinches at the sound of its name coming out of this man’s mouth. It cowers and turns around then scurries off toward the voice. The poor dog was probably just trying to spread the weight of its own abuse. There was no mistaking that flinch.

Opal gets into her mail truck, starts it, and heads back to the main office.

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