The painted drum, p.18
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       The Painted Drum, p.18

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  “Maybe I should have let you,” she said gently to his screaming face. “Maybe you would have thought you really ate something.”

  Then he screamed again and she felt her hand go back with a sudden jerk. Her hand swept forward so fast she couldn’t stop it from slapping him on the side of the face. The slap made a sharp crack in the air. Apitchi didn’t stop bawling, he only whirled away from Shawnee and ran at the opposite wall, grabbed the one curtain that sagged off a window, pulled until it fell in a brown and white checkered heap. Then he kept running around the room, at one wall then the other, still crying. His shoes fell off. Snot covered his face and then quickly dried to a glaze. Shawnee tossed her long hair back and stood by the kitchen stove, watching him. Her eyes were lovely, dark and slanted in a face shaped like a heart.

  Even though she’d already done this, Shawnee decided to look through the whole house methodically to see if there was anything to eat forgotten in some bag or box, some corner. There were two rooms, and the bathroom. She started in the bathroom. They had eaten the toothpaste already. Striped towels were balled up in a corner, and she carefully took them apart and shook them free of wrinkles. The bathroom was icy cold; the wind shot through the window, which did not close right. Sometimes the pipe that made the faucet work froze, and Mama had told her to leave the water on just enough to drip through the night. Shawnee opened the cupboard and dragged out the nearly empty bottles of shampoo, the cracked plastic toys, the broken tubes of hair mousse, her mother’s plastic hair cap printed with bright yellow flowers. She put the combs and the brush aside in a heap. Way back in the cupboard there was a bottle with an inch of cherry cough syrup in the bottom. She drank most of it and then ran water in the bottle and shook it. She brought it out to the kitchen and gave it to Apitchi. He went quiet and began to drink the pinkish stuff with a greedy sob. Shawnee went back to the bathroom, dumped the trash out carefully onto the floor. She pawed through it and then jammed it back into the plastic bin.

  She began to search all through the room that was part kitchen and part living room. She had looked all through that room before, but the find in the bathroom encouraged her. She opened the cupboard doors one by one. Easy to tell, of course, they were completely empty. But in a time past her remembering, someone had covered the shelves on the bottom with white paper, now yellowed and stained. When it occurred to Shawnee to lift those papers up, she found crumbs underneath or maybe they were crushed bugs but she did not care. She swept them carefully into a plastic bowl and then parceled them out into shallow coffee cups. Alice and Apitchi saw what she was doing and watched her. When the crumbs were evenly divided, each took a cup and then they went over to the blankets and carefully sat down. Quietly, intent, they wet their pointer fingers and then dipped into the crumbs. Put their fingers in their mouths. While they sucked on crumbs, Shawnee kept searching.

  The refrigerator had not worked for some time and was used to store dishes and cereal and bread. There were only plates and cups in it now, a box of screws and some jar lids. Shawnee looked through the compartments and drawers anyway because her mother always hid treats so that the children wouldn’t eat them all at once, or sometimes because she’d bought herself a special little something. Shawnee was counting on her mother’s habit of stashing things away and forgetting where she put them. She opened pots, overturned empty cans, reached her hands into the creepy dark recesses under the sink and behind the stove. She unbent a clothes hanger and plucked at the catch on the rectangular hinged door beneath the oven until it opened. She stood on top of the counter and swept her hand carefully across the tops of the cupboards where she couldn’t see. There were no closets to look inside, but there was a rack by the door that held coats and sweaters. Boots, shoes, socks, and slippers were piled all around. She pushed them aside and it was here, rummaging through pockets, that she made a spectacular find. As soon as her hand closed on the bar of candy, she froze. She didn’t let the paper crackle. Alice and Apitchi were curled in the pile of blankets. Shawnee drew the bar out slowly until it nestled in her sleeve. If Apitchi had been crying again or Alice chewing on her hair, she might have kept it for herself. But when she turned, she saw that they were watching her with dull hope, so she slowly held it out.

  They knew exactly when the oil ran out because it got so cold, so fast. Shawnee dressed Apitchi in everything that she could find for him to wear, and then she made Alice put on her leggings and three pairs of socks and snowsuit and packs. She got herself dressed, too, in every warm piece of clothing that she had. But it was a restless, unrelenting cold and it was late afternoon. If the bill was paid they could have used the stove, it was electric. They could have opened the oven and sat around it as they had done before. Or used the woodstove. They should have kept the woodstove. Shawnee’s grandfather had been angry when they took it out. Now it was dumped behind the house and covered with snow. The hole in the wall was still there, sealed over with an aluminum pie plate. Shawnee knew the old stovepipe was propped next to the back door. She went outside and tugged it out of the snow, then dragged it into the house. It wasn’t that heavy, it was a hollow of thin sheet metal. She stood on two chairs and ripped the pie plate off the wall. She had Alice steady the pipe as she fitted it into the hole. Twice it fell out of the wall before Shawnee thought to drag another chair underneath the bottom half. The pipe stayed, propped up.

  Now the thing was to make a fire right underneath the stovepipe, without burning up the chair. It was an old metal chair but had a plastic seat and backrest. Cement blocks and boards made a shelf in one corner. Shawnee took four blocks and laid them out underneath the stovepipe. She took four more blocks and set them on top of those. The blocks were heavy. By the time she’d got them all set up she was warm in all her clothing, but she was also dizzy. She took a deep breath, went over to the stove, and removed the rack from the middle. There were two cookie sheets underneath the oven and she took those, too. She put the rack on the blocks and the cookie sheets over it, and said, “Now let’s get some paper and some wood.” Her voice surprised her. It was scratchy and cold as the air.

  First she crushed up old papers and movie-star magazines. Then on top of that she put shredded cardboard and tiny sticks. She took a book of matches from where Mama kept them, a bowl on the counter out of Apitchi’s reach. She lighted the crumpled paper, and when the flames were long she added more strips of cardboard and thicker twigs that had been lying outdoors on top of the snow. But the snow was too deep to get bigger pieces of wood and the old wood pile had been used up in the summer. Shawnee cracked apart an old stool and dragged over a laundry basket full of wooden blocks that a church group had given them—all different colors. When the fire was hot enough, she fed first the pieces of the stool, then a block, another block, into the flames. She thought Apitchi might cry, for they were his blocks, but though he opened his mouth in distress no cry came out. He clung tight to Alice. Some of the smoke went up the chimney pipe and some collected over them, but they could breathe all right. There were a lot of blocks, there was another chair, a lamp base, birch-bark baskets that her mother had started but hadn’t yet finished to sell, other things that could be burned. Shawnee dragged all those things around them and then she got into the blankets with her brother and sister. The fire gave off enough warmth and they all fit underneath the bear robe.

  2

  “The dead are drinking here tonight,” said Ira as she joined the man at the table. They were in a town bar where the hard-drinking people went, a tough place where everyone looked up each time a new person entered from the icy street. The drinkers didn’t look away once the door shut and the blast of cold air was absorbed into the bar’s steamy atmosphere—they just kept watching emptily the way the dead stare. Ira looked right back at them and narrowed her eyes.

  “I don’t feel like going home.”

  “You feel like coming with me,” the man, who was not drunk, stated, “but you can’t because if you do, you will have to sleep on the other side
of my wife.”

  “Is she good-looking? Or is she ugly like you?” asked Ira, but she smiled to show she meant he was the opposite of ugly.

  The people had turned away to resume their conversations, to drink or argue. Thirty or more sat scattered in the booths or at the tables, some in unzipped snowmobile suits or dressed in camou-flage hunting parkas. The man sitting beside Ira had given her the only friendly look in the place, so she’d sat down next to him.

  “C’mon,” said Ira, smiling, “ugly like you?”

  The man said with a kind of shy reluctance that his wife was beautiful, but for the scar on her lip. He passed his finger slantwise across his own mouth, and Ira remembered the woman he spoke of. Instead of mentioning her name, people often made a sign for her like that, and everybody knew who they meant.

  “I’m almost beautiful, too,” said Ira. “I would be except for what’s in here.”

  She tapped her breast over the heart, casually, then she took a drink of the beer that the man had just bought for her.

  “Maybe you could clean that up,” the man suggested, nodding at that place Ira indicated.

  “I’m trying to,” said Ira. “Alcohol kills germs.”

  She took an abrupt swallow of her drink and tapped her face with her fingers. “I’m getting sterilized inside. You won’t catch anything from me.”

  “Even if I did,” the man said, “my wife would cure it. She knows a lot of these old-time medicines?”

  His voice rose as though he was asking a question of Ira, who nodded just as if she was giving a real answer to his question. She drank her beer, had another, and then one more. Now she was just drunk enough. She didn’t want to get any drunker, but she also did not want to get sober, not yet, not by any means. As she’d already said, she wasn’t ready to go home. She said it again in a vaguer, softer way than before.

  “I’m not ready to go home.”

  “Don’t say that around just anybody,” said the man, chiding her in a friendly way. “There’s dirty men in here.”

  “Where, where,” said Ira, looking openly at the drinkers now. Their stares seemed comical. “I want a dirty man.

  “But not that one,” she went on, following the chin-pointing nod of the man who was buying her drinks. “I’ve had him and he’s no good. His wife hired someone, maybe hired your own wife, to put a medicine upon his wiinag so it droops when he thinks of anyone but her.” She laughed and made a sad face as she held up her finger and then slowly curled it into her palm.

  “I don’t want to go home, but I don’t want that, either.”

  “What do you want?” asked the man.

  “I want something else,” said Ira. “I definitely want something else.”

  “Maybe you want spiritual help,” said the man.

  Ira lowered her face and then cast her eyes up at him and shook her head back and forth.

  “What are you doing in a bar, anyway?” she said. “What do you mean spiritual help? You don’t go talking about spiritual things when you’re drinking.”

  “I do,” said the man. “I’m like that. Different because I know how to handle my drinking. Therefore, in a bar, I can talk of these things as though I was a regular person.”

  “I’ll tell you what,” said Ira, “you’re not a regular person. You’re a windigo. You’re made of ice inside. You turn your drinks to slush in your belly, then you try and offer me spiritual help and you say your wife is beautiful, she has a scarred lip, she knows medicine. There’s something not right about this conversation.”

  Ira pushed her finger around the lip of her glass, then scooped up some foam. She stuck her finger in her mouth. Looking at him curiously, she continued. “You know what I mean? Something off.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about it,” said the man. “You’re a good-looking woman. You’ll get laid.”

  “Any time I want,” said Ira, tossing her hair back, fluffing it with her hand like an old-time movie star, “I look in the mirror, don’t I? You should see me naked, but you never will. I’m so good-looking when I’m naked that it hurts to look at me. I have a painfully good-looking body that makes men beg like dogs. But you’ll never see it.”

  “Another beer.” The man signaled.

  “Thanks,” said Ira. “All the same, you’ll never see it. Just think. There you’ll be in the rest home. You open your mouth like a toothless old bird and they pour soup down your gullet through a funnel. You’ll be thinking to yourself, If only I’d seen her body, what she looked like under that sweater, that parka, those jeans. Maybe I could resign myself to drinking soup through a funnel. But no. You’ll always wonder.”

  “I don’t need to see you that way, really,” said the man. “I can tell. Of course, to raise children right, your looks don’t matter.”

  “You got that right,” said Ira, shifting in her chair, frowning at the black plastic ashtray, tipping it critically back and forth. “Kids, they don’t care. They think you’re beautiful anyway, no matter what. I should go home. That’s where my kids are. They’re sleeping anyway.”

  “You hope.”

  “Well, it’s cold. It’s very cold. They’re not going out of doors.”

  “It is very bad, this cold.”

  “This dry cold.”

  “And it’s still going down.”

  Now for a few moments neither did speak, as they were both caught up in their private worries and thoughts about the cold. The man knew his wife had the car and he hoped she would remember to start it in the middle of the night, otherwise the battery would go dead. In this kind of deep cold you had to run the car every four or six hours, unless you could plug it in someplace. He’d looked ahead. He had a heater for it because he really did work. Sometimes if you covered the hood up with blankets, to keep the wind off, that helped too. His wife also talked to the car, treated it like an animal and told it when it was going to be fed. Sometimes she was joking when she did that, sometimes she was serious. Sometimes she put tobacco down beside its wheels before a long, tough trip. She didn’t drink. The scar was put upon her face when she was just a little girl.

  “I don’t know.” Ira was talking again. “I should have a reason. I just don’t want to go home. I don’t know how I would get there anyhow, through the bush. I got a ride into town, here, before I knew it was going to keep on getting colder and colder like this.”

  “Maybe you should come home with me,” said the man in a transparently false tone of voice, “I was bullshitting you about my wife.”

  “No, you weren’t.”

  “Well, I am pretty sure that she is at her sister’s with the kids and with the cold going deeper like this they will not be coming home. Do you want me to make a phone call?”

  “I’m just that drunk I don’t have good judgment right now. Do you have an STD?”

  “What’s that?”

  “Oh right, your wife and her medicine. I’m just sure she fixed it,” said Ira. “Where do you live anyway?”

  It seemed to Ira that she knew where he lived, that she’d heard about him. Something more than that scar was familiar about his wife, too, but she couldn’t put the story together.

  “I live just outside town here. I work at the electric plant. I got my own house through the housing board.” The man sounded dreamy now. “It’s a three bedroom and it came to us already half assembled. They drove it up to the lot in two pieces, wrapped in plastic. Then they took the plastic off and set the halves down and fit them together. When we walked inside, the rooms already had their cupboards, toilets, everything. It was a miracle.”

  The man was solemn, remembering the day that the house arrived. Ira laughed. “Cheap miracle. A prefab. My father built our house by hand.”

  “All they had to do was hook up the plumbing, the electric, the gas.”

  “You might be contented,” said Ira. “I wouldn’t be. I’m looking for something else.”

  The young man now laughed. “How long have you said that,” he asked, “how many times to a
guy in a bar? I’m a little different because I can live with my habit, controlled drinking. You’re getting drunk though.”

  “And you’re helping me.” Ira pointed at him and squinted along her finger. “You are an enabler. That is what I call you.”

  “Why do we do this, oh why do we do this,” said the man, a false pathos in his voice at which the two of them laughed in a slightly overanimated way that made them both know they were attractive to each other, and that they were thinking about what might happen.

  “I suppose your wife, with all of her medicines, she has a theory on why.”

  “Yes she does, it’s an elegant theory. She’s a social worker and she sees all that people do. Her theory? It’s called sheer stupidity.”

  “You met her in a bar?”

  “No, at a ceremony.”

  Ira slapped the table lightly.

  “There you go again referring to spiritual things in a bar. You can either be a drunk or a spiritual person. Not both if you’re an Indian. I’m sorry. That’s the way it is.”

  “Who said?”

  “Oh, come on,” Ira looked around the bar, as though someone might be listening in, “the Shawnee prophet. You ever heard of the Shawnee prophet? That’s who said.”

  The man looked down at his hands, at his beer, which he had drunk too quickly.

  “I suppose I am no better than you.”

  “That’s what I’m telling you,” said Ira. “If you’re here, you’ve made a choice. That choice is not to be spiritual. That choice is to be like me.”

  The man now turned and looked at her for a long time. He was in his early thirties and she in her late twenties. Their hair was identical, a dull and wavy black, and his was longer, tied in a ponytail with a band of black elastic. Ira’s hair was springy and thick. She pushed it back behind her ears, but her ears were small and flat so the hair kept falling back in wiry tendrils around her face. She was lucky, she knew, to have the face she had. It could be worse. A round face with small, clever, up-slanting features. Someone had called her mouth passionate—not that she had big pouty zhaaginaash lips—her upper lip was straight across. But it curved in an arc as though a man had pushed against it with his teeth. Although she’d had three children, and ate cheap, starchy, greasy food, her body was still young and slender. Maybe her eyes, deep and smoky black, carried a wounded look in them. Maybe she was just confused because of the beers and the uncertainty about returning home. Her wants conflicted. She wanted this man to bring her home, but that was twenty miles, so she needed for him to have a working car and take her there. But first, she needed to buy food. She had already arranged for a delivery of fuel, but that would be tomorrow. At the same time, she wanted to stay here, suspended. Like one of those bugs trapped in plastic for a souvenir, she thought, looking at the light in the warm color of her beer. Halfway drunk forever. Not yet sloppy, but not back there, either, in the sober gray static. She supposed that she was desperate.

 
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