He followed a path that would take him to the spot where Dusty had died. On the way there, he saw that dog—short-haired with a rusty tinge to its coat. It was still, as if waiting for him. The head was sensitive, a lighter buff. Its ears flared up as it came out of the brush. The dog studied him. Peter stopped, startled at its composure and how it measured him. The dog vanished when he took a step. There was no sound, as if the woods had lightly absorbed the animal.
An overnight blast of wind, a short quick rain, had taken down most of the leaves. They lay brilliant on the ground, layer on layer of shattering color. The morning light struck the white birch to near incandescence. As he passed through a stand of bur oak, the air darkened. At last he stood where Landreaux had stood, straight across from where the buck must have stopped. Directly between them was the climbing tree Maggie had told him about. Peter had no idea his children had been playing so deep in the woods and so far from the house. But the tree with its low crotch and curved limbs was irresistible. One limb was blasted. He walked up and ran his hand along the shafted needle-sharp spikes of wood. Then the patch of ground below the tree limb knocked him to his knees. He put his hand on the place. All around, the ground was trampled and torn. Peter lay on his back. Looking up, he worked it out that just before he died Dusty had climbed the tree—he had been sitting on a limb. He’d seen the great buck. Startled, he’d fallen just as Landreaux shot. Peter had read Landreaux’s statement and everything he said matched.
Now he lay down on the place where Dusty’s life had flowed into the earth, closed his eyes, listened to the sound of the woods around him. He heard a chickadee, a faraway nuthatch, a crow ragged in the distance. He heard his own voice, crying out. Then the hum and tick of twigs, leaves. Rush of pine needles. The scent of sweetgrass, tobacco, kinnikinnick, offerings. Landreaux had been there, too.
LANDREAUX WAS AT present doing what he did every couple of weeks. He was helping Emmaline’s mother. Before she was his mother-in-law, she had been his favorite teacher. In fact, she had saved him the way she always saved people. She was not on his client list, but he helped her anyway. He arrived at her apartment in the Elders Lodge, a rangy brick building shaped like a thunderbird—you could see the shape looking down from an airplane. Emmaline’s mother lived in the tail. Nobody called her grandma, kookum, or auntie. Her first name was LaRose, but nobody called her that either. They called her by her teacher name, Mrs. Peace.
Generations of students had loved her as a teacher and were aware of no vice, yet Mrs. Peace claimed that she wasn’t entirely wholesome. She had a checkered past, she liked to say, though she had at last remained faithful to the memory of Emmaline’s father, Billy Peace. It was reverently said that she had tried to throw herself into his grave. He had actually been cremated, but no one remembered. Billy Peace was also Nola’s father. Nobody really knew how many wives had married Billy, or what had gone on in that cultish compound of his decades ago. Billy’s children and now grandchildren kept turning up and were usually added to the tribal rolls.
Mrs. Peace had been a sad-looking, pretty woman with long flossy brown hair. She had long flossy white hair now and was still pretty but looked happy. She didn’t cut and curl her hair like most of her friends, but wore it in a thin braid, sometimes a bun. Every day she wore a different pair of beaded earrings. She made up the patterns herself—today sky blue with orange centers. She had taken up this hobby, and the smoking of cigarillos, after she left off teaching and moved back to the reservation. She rarely smoked a cigarillo now. She said beading had helped her quit. Her stand-up magnifying glass was placed just so on the table, for her vision was poor. When she looked up at Landreaux, her thick eyeglasses gave her a bewildered otherworldliness, adding to her aura.
Landreaux entered as she nodded him in, hugged him. They stood wordlessly in the embrace, then stepped back. Mrs. Peace held out her hands, palms up.
He took his boots off by the door. She was boiling water for tea. Landreaux waved the stethoscope and blood pressure cuff at her, but she told him to put that stuff away. She felt fine. The lodge owned a carpet-shampooing machine, and half her apartment, covered deeply in an ash-blond fiber, needed Landreaux’s care. For the moment, he left the machine and jug of soap parked outside the door. Though she still had an occasional attack, LaRose’s enigmatic pain had nearly vanished after the death of Billy Peace. Neuralgia, full-body migraine, osteoporosis, spinal problems, lupus, sciatica, bone cancer, phantom limb syndrome though she had her limbs—these diagnoses had come and gone. Her medical file was a foot high. She knew, of course, why the pains had left her at that time, rarely returning. Billy had been cruel, self-loving, and clever. His love had been a burden no different from hate. Sometimes his ironies still sneaked at her from the spirit world. People thought she had been faithful to his memory because she had abjectly adored Billy Peace. She let them say what they wanted. Actually, he had taught her what she needed to know about men. She needed no further instruction.
Landreaux, who as a man believed the tragic lovelorn-teacher story, was solicitous, convinced that she presented a brave face to the world. Today he saw with concern that her face was crashed out, blank, and she was trying to make herself comfortable in her reclining chair. Perhaps she was having an episode because of what he had done.
Don’t even worry about me, she said. This will take a long time to work out, eh? You’re a good boy to come over here and help me at a time like this.
I can’t just sit around, he said, and tried to coax her into an opiate or two.
It makes me loopy.
She peered at him through her bottle-glass-thick lenses, her eyes swimming.
Are you looking forward to having your carpet shampooed? he asked, hearing what he said as ridiculous or maybe pathetic. But she made his awkwardness okay.
It’s amazing what a kick I get out of that, she answered. You go ahead.
He drank the tea and brought in the machine.
Landreaux moved the reclining chair, magazine rack, television, and television stand off the carpet. He put water into the tank, mixed the soap into the water, and began. The machine made purring, bubbling sounds. He moved it back and forth. The sound was low and mesmerizing. Sure enough, Mrs. Peace closed her eyes, beatific, smiling. When he was done, her eyes flipped open and she got up to bustle around the edges of the wet carpet. He put the machine away and sat down to eat the Juneberry coffee cake she’d put out for him. Then she answered a phone call and said that she had to help Elka with her eyedrops. Her slippered feet slapped away down the hall.
When the door shut, Landreaux went into the bathroom. He checked her medicine cabinet as he always did, to make sure that her medications were filled and up-to-date. She was almost out of two, so Landreaux put the bottles on the table. When she came back, he said that he’d go down to the hospital pharmacy and refill them.
Before you go, she said, here. Take a look.
LaRose opened her closet. She had certificates, brittle school reports, clippings of poems, stacks of ancient letters in there, seeking after the first LaRose. Emmaline called her the historical society. At least her photographs were all in albums now, organized by Snow. Mrs. Peace took a big, black, battered round tin from a low shelf. The top was painted with three faded roses. People gave her things with roses on them because of her name, and perhaps the same had been true of her mother, because this tin was quite old. Mrs. Peace kept odd-sized papers in this tin—aphorisms, and newspapers, pictures, stories of dogs, papers in her own writing. The sight of her penmanship, the swirls of her name, filled Landreaux with memories of Emmaline as a girl.
Look at what? he said.
She handed him the poem—a copy of the poem “Invictus.” Generations of her students had memorized it.
Keep it, she said.
I still know it by heart. This is the foul clutch of circumstance, all right, he said.
Fell clutch, she said.
He looked at a piece of grainy Big Chief tablet paper.
I made you write ten pages just like it, but I only kept this one, she said.
She put her fine-boned little hand on his shoulder. Warmth spread instantly from her fingers.
I will not run away, he said. They sat together holding hands on the couch.
Before he left, Landreaux gave Mrs. Peace the two plastic bottles, and she read the numbers off into the pharmacy telephone line. She gave Landreaux the bottles to put back in the medicine cabinet. These weren’t the ones he cared about, she knew. It was true, also, that he hadn’t taken any of those other ones for a while. Unlike many of her friends, she kept careful count of the pills in her bottles. Old people were such an easy source.
Landreaux needed the pickup to haul tipi poles, hay bales. He needed it for dump runs or just to be a man. But he made Emmaline drive the pickup to work because it was safer, and he took the magic Corolla—the car that would not die. They had inherited the Corolla when Emmaline’s mother moved into the nursing home. Beyond the suggested upkeep, which Landreaux himself could do, the car never broke down. Compared with the other cars he’d had in his life, this car seemed mystically dependable. It was a drab gray color and the seats were worn, the padding crushed. Landreaux couldn’t push the driver’s seat back far enough to accommodate his long legs, but he liked driving it. Especially after the first snowfall, when he put on the snow tires, he took pleasure in growling around on the back roads to visit his clients.
Ottie Plume, a foot lost to diabetes, lived with his wife, Baptiste, a few miles out of town on a coveted section of the lake. Bap didn’t want her husband in the rehab, so Landreaux came over there to do physical therapy, shower, toilet, count pills, give shots, feed, trim nose and ear hair, clip nails, massage Ottie, and swap bits of gossip with the two. He also drove Ottie to dialysis and stayed with him while he got recirculated.
Bap opened the door when Landreaux tapped.
I didn’ know if you’d show up, she said.
Life stops for nothing, even what I done, said Landreaux, and his saying it like that, taking it on, calmed Bap. She called into the other room.
He showed up, Ottie!
She stayed, though she’d ordinarily have left to do her own things while Landreaux worked with Ottie. Landreaux knew they’d been discussing him and that Bap was staying so she could tell her relatives how Landreaux behaved. What signs he showed. Emmaline said it would be tough going back to work. The story would be around him for the rest of his life. He would live in the story. He couldn’t change it. Even LaRose won’t change it, she said.
But Landreaux knew that wasn’t exactly true. LaRose had already changed the story.
Oh, I’m glad you’re here, said Ottie. His brown-gold cherub face, round and worn by suffering, brightened. Once a powerful wrestler, Ottie hadn’t quite softened. His pounds went on sleek, like seal fat. Most people in his family had died more quickly of diabetes’ complications.
I was saying to Bap, life don’t quit.
It don’t quit until it does, said Ottie. I managed a shit on my own the other day. Nearly fell off the fucken stool.
Jeez, Ottie, said Bap.
Let’s get it done, said Landreaux, wheeling Ottie down the short hall.
The tribe had sprung for a disability bathroom and Ottie had a shower chair. After Landreaux helped Ottie into the chair, he scrubbed Ottie’s back and hosed him off. The door opened a crack. Bap’s arm came through with a set of clean clothes. When they came out to the kitchen, there were blueberry pancakes with fake maple syrup, cooked up with powdered commodity eggs. Landreaux could taste the familiar flat chemically dry eggish quality and the aspartame over the maple. It was good.
So how’s everybody dealing? Bap sat back from the table. She was a small, husky woman who still kept up the fiction that she was jealous as hell of other women, had to keep them from pursuing Ottie. She wore makeup all the time for Ottie. Eye shadow a different color for each day of the week. It was Purple Tuesday. She pulled her hair back in a scrunchie and sprayed her bangs in a massive pout over her plucked-skinny eyebrows. Her nails were lacquered an innocent pink. One finger tapped her lips.
Maybe I shouldn’t say nothing. Keep my trap shut?
Nah, said Landreaux.
Emmaline was her cousin.
You’re family, he said.
Emmaline’s real strong, said Bap.
Real strong, said Landreaux. His head began to buzz. I wanna establish a fund, you know? When they get better, when our families get more healed.
Bap and Ottie nodded warily, as if they might be asked to contribute.
Everybody makes a fund up now, said Bap.
Me, said Ottie, I know this is a sad time. But when I go, I want my fund to be a high-heels fund for reservation ladies. I sure like it when Bappy dresses up for me and does her thing. I’d like to see a few more ladies make that click sound when they walk. Drives me fucken wild.
Bap took Ottie’s hand in hers.
You don’t need no fund, babydoll. You ain’t gonna die.
Except piece by piece, said Ottie.
Hate diabetes, said Landreaux.
We gotta get him ready for his appointment, said Bap. You gotta test his sugar.
Already done, said Ottie.
Landreaux didn’t say he’d tested Ottie’s sugar when he smelled the pancakes, knowing the carbs would spike Ottie’s blood up no matter how much fake sweetener Bap threw at the problem. They were liable to hallucinate on that aspartame shit, he sometimes thought. He and Ottie were in the car, wheelchair folded in the trunk, before Landreaux realized he’d escaped without really answering Bap’s question about how they were dealing. Ottie had deflected that line of inquiry with his high-heels death fund.
Thanks, he said to Ottie.
I didn’t know what to say to Bap. How we’re doing. We’re still in that phase where we wake up, remember, wanna go back to sleep.
I spose you won’t never hunt no more.
Burnt my gun. Well, what much of it that would burn.
That don’t do nobody no good, said Ottie. Now who is gonna get your children the protein they need to grow big and strong?
We’ll set snares, said Landreaux. Fry some waboose.
That would be on my diet, said Ottie. I’ll trade you some a them pills you like.
Landreaux didn’t answer.
But I’ll miss your deer meat, Ottie went on. I guess it ain’t something you get over, though. You keep on going through it.
Over and over, said Landreaux. Maybe trade you later. I don’t need that stuff.
But he did, ever so bad.
THE HOT BAR at Whitey’s gas station sold deep-fried wings, gizzards, drummies, pizza, and Hot Pockets. Romeo Puyat saw Landreaux drive by the gas station and park out back in the weeds. Romeo was a skinny man with close-set, piercing eyes and a wounded, hunching walk. His right arm was always held close to his body because it had been broken in so many places that it was pinned together. His right leg too. Still, he could move quickly. Thinking that Landreaux would stay inside and eat his lunch, Romeo grabbed the siphon hose and his bright-red fire-code-approved plastic container. He lurched, crooked but efficient, over to Landreaux’s car and set up his equipment. Romeo was adept from frequent practice and soon had the gasoline flowing from Landreaux’s gas tank, through the rubber tubing, into his container.
Landreaux walked out of the store carrying a small grease-proof cardboard box. His eyes flicked when he saw Romeo, but he did not acknowledge his old classmate. The reasons for hating each other went back to their childhood’s brutal end. The two had stopped talking back in boarding school. And then there was the time Romeo had tried to murder Landreaux in his sleep. That was in their early twenties, and it just happened that Landreaux had been in possession of a lot of money that one night. As the money was the main corrupting influence, Romeo was
Romeo had accepted, at least in theory, how Landreaux had stolen his first love, Emmaline, who maybe hadn’t liked Romeo anyway. Romeo was grudgingly okay with how Landreaux and Emmaline had unquestioningly taken in, and admirably looked after, his surprise son, Hollis. Romeo told himself that they got a good deal in that boy, because Hollis was A-number-one. Still, he had to admit there was a lot of upkeep involved there. These days, anyway, the main thing was that Romeo just wanted Landreaux to share and share alike. As a personal caregiver well-known at the hospital, surely Landreaux had lots of access to prescription painkillers. Why not make his old friend a little happier? Take away his agonies? Yes, Romeo had his own prescription, but it just was not OxyContin and sometimes he had to sell his lesser stuff to pay for the really good stuff. Like Fentanyl. He had been trying to buy a patch somewhere.
Landreaux walked over to his car.
Well, well, well, said Romeo, glancing down at the gas flowing through the tubing. Long time no see.
Landreaux was touched, in a sad way, to find his old schoolmate stealing his gas. He had long ago decided that whatever Romeo or anyone else did to him resulting from his hell days he had coming. So he said nothing, except I gotta go. My mozzarella sticks are getting cold.
Mozzarella sticks, said Romeo, with a look of distaste.
For the kids, said Landreaux.
Oooooh, said Romeo, as if he’d heard something wise and surprising. He jerked back his head, frowned in concentration, and gently removed the tubing.
Got something for me, old niiji? He fussily tapped the tubing against the inside of the tank. Then he screwed the pressure-lock lid back on the red plastic jug and replaced the gas cap on Landreaux’s car. He smacked the cover closed.
No, said Landreaux.
Well, my work here is done, said Romeo.
LaRose by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes