Where to? Where to, my man?
The AA meeting beckons. Destination? Romeo recalls that the group was maundering on about the step that includes a searching and fearless moral inventory. Romeo’s favorite. He loves to listen to his compatriots’ new inventory items every week. Romeo’s avid listening skills sustain the group narrative. His later comments provoke humor and tears. The staginess of the meetings suits him and always improves his mood. So off he goes. Catches a ride up the hill, slouches around the side of the church, down the steps, along the corridor and into a homey room with mildewed carpet. Chairs in a circle, waiting. Nobody here yet. Romeo sits down and realizes that he may not have the means to get himself into the right mood to withstand assaults of fellowship. He has some means, which he exits into the bathroom to safely take advantage of, and feels himself fortified when he returns.
Still, nobody. And a dry Mr. Coffee.
The sun leaks in and there is the smell of funeral power-cooking down the hall. Good eats later. The hard chair becomes more comfortable as the chemical fortification builds. Plus, there is gloating to accomplish. The attainment of his ends is now Romeo’s to nibble on. Thinking back, he calls up each word, each exchange, each emotion loosed in the Alco parking lot. These moments are his forever, his to taste singly. He lingers over the initial confusion, the dawning dread, the vertigo, the resolution, which will mean a big fat comeuppance at last for Landreaux. Maybe death, even, fast or slow, though unlikely. And would he want that for real? He had set things in motion. That’s all.
My work here is done.
I like that, says Romeo out loud.
He leans back with his head resting lightly in crooked arms, legs outstretched, the sad one shorter and now quiet. This is the pose of satisfaction Father Travis comes upon as he enters the meeting, and sits across from Romeo, who slumbers in that unlikely position. Eventually, the priest calls his name and wakes him up. The meeting was supposed to start ten minutes ago.
Guess it’s just us two, says Father Travis.
Hardly worth it.
Romeo is disappointed—there will be no entertainment.
On the contrary, says Father Travis. A chance for special attention to your growth in the program, Romeo.
I am supposed to be somewhere, says Romeo.
You’re supposed to be right here, says Father Travis.
They pass the page-protected ritual greetings and organizational prompts back and forth. They read the steps aloud. Father Travis says, You’re up.
You’re the speaker of the day.
I got nothing.
Sure you do.
Romeo wants to say the fuck with that, but his mouth surprises him by uttering other words.
Okay. I’ll start.
His mouth, his tongue, his voice box, seem to be working separately at first. His Adam’s apple shivers, the skulls vibrate, his voice quakes. What’s going on? It is as if a different Romeo is speaking, an interior Romeo. This unknown alternate Romeo has staged a coup. This Romeo Two has infiltrated his communication infrastructure. Are the drugs betraying him? What did he take again? What shape of pill? Romeo thinks it was a big white oval but there also were some smaller yellow articles. Perhaps crisscrossing side effects. Romeo is startled to silence even as Romeo Two becomes voluble, moved to unload certain acts undertaken for certain reasons. Romeo Two’s mouth claptraps, his voice shifts gear, high and higher, until Romeo One understands in despair that Romeo Two has frog-leaped all the way to that holy step somewhere beyond three, maybe four, five, where you tell God and another human the exact nature of your wrongs. Talk about combined side effects. Where among the vertigo, gastric pain, incontinence, shortness of breath, and possible kidney failure was telling the truth? Meanwhile, Father Travis, another human, and God’s representative on earth, is caught up in the fever of Romeo’s surprise recital:
I wasn’t always this scumbag a person, Father Travis. Once, I was somebody. Once, I was considered the most intelligent kid in my class. I was the treasured confidant of Landreaux Iron himself when Landreaux was a cool guy. This was before his sad-sack days. It was when he was new at boarding school. Landreaux at the time had a kinda rock-star quality, always leaning on a board. Then Landreaux tempted me to run away. A fiasco that would change my life. That would . . .
Tears, not the eye-welling teasers he used to gather the information-spilling sympathy of others, but choking, wretched, wracking. His voice scratches out. Ruin my life! Romeo tries to take control of Romeo Two, but it’s too late to stop. They merge. He keeps talking.
In our mutual adventure, Landreaux fell upon me from a height and broke my leg and arm—you know the story. Everybody knows the story. Landreaux’s fate is to cause death and destruction to those around him, while he always slips free into the sunset. Or to Emmaline. I mean, there we were at school. This was after we had run away. We were caught, we had surrendered. I had come back from the hospital with my whole side wrecked, arm in an itching, stinking, long-term cast, leg pinned together inside, and afflicted with the nervous damages I bear to this day. First thing, I see Landreaux.
My man! I call out to him. My man!
He looks right through me. Maybe he feels bad for what he did. But not sorry! He looks right through me.
Father Travis, that right there is why I fell from grace. Not because of my crinkled armbone or my sad ol’ leg, not because I lost brain cells in the fall, not because I am at heart a raging addict who’d do anything to feed his want, though that’s true also. But, Father Travis. That’s not why.
You ever heard of omphalosite? You know what that is? It’s a kinda parasitic twin. It has no heart. Depends on the twin’s heart for circulation. Just lives off the twin and usually dwindles away before anybody even knows it exists. That’s how it was with me—like Landreaux was the beating heart and I the fainter twin and when he didn’t know me anymore my circulation stopped. I became a dead person, Father Travis. I was dead inside after that first year when Landreaux suddenly did not know who I was, suddenly would not answer to my call, suddenly outcast me when I needed him the worst. I needed him to come to my aid and stop a nickname from sticking on me. It took all my doing to slide out from under or slap down those nicknames. I battered Crip to the earth and went after Stooper. Sank my fangs into Wing and I defined myself. I stayed Romeo. I did it, but it cost me, and now here behold: I am who I am. Not a good person, not a bad person.
Father Travis listens, impassive, his eyes cast down.
Well, maybe, says Romeo. Could be I am a bad person. Unforgiving all these days and years. But when I see Landreaux living large with the girl who marked me out, who might have loved me at one time the way I love her, then I am deader than I was dead before. I become the gray worm. Just a digestion tube, really.
So Romeo loves Emmaline too, thinks Father Travis, and the sudden fact that he and his friend the weasel are afflicted and exalted by the same emotion makes him raise his head and settle his eyes on Romeo. That little gesture of attention causes in Romeo a deeper unflooding.
Truth he doesn’t even know is true tumbles out.
I put the mark on Landreaux just now, Father Travis.
What do you mean?
Romeo loses track. What does he mean? Put the mark. He stammers, under the influence of truth-tell side effects, to piece together what he has with utter certainty divulged to Peter Ravich. He spoke with such confidence. His delivery had been dignified, fluid, impressive. Oh yes. Now he remembers. Romeo puts on his honest face.
So you know that Landreaux Iron had relapsed that day. Yes! Romeo raises his hand, testifying. We know he’s struggled, and he’s fought, and I more than anyone understand that. Acknowledge it, Father Travis. I more than anyone dislike bearing unpleasant news. But, yes, it takes a strength of character. Even if Landreaux had that strength, which I know he does, Father Travis, because I know Landreaux well, even so there are times. This was one of the times. His shot blasted a tree branch, spli
Romeo drifts a bit, then rouses himself, riffles in his pocket, draws out the report.
Father Travis puts his hand out, takes the paper. He reads the paper. He holds it long enough to read it several times over. At last he lifts his eyes to meet Romeo’s dozing-off eyes.
It doesn’t say that.
It doesn’t say that.
Romeo sits up in his chair, mouth clamped.
I put it all together! Romeo speaks firmly. Father Travis!
It doesn’t say that, Romeo. The words you used are written here, but they don’t add up to your story. It just doesn’t say that.
Please don’t take this away from me. This is my only thing!
He peers stubbornly at Father Travis.
You are mistaken! Romeo slaps his knees. Mistaken!
Romeo rounds up all of the scattered bits of who he is, or was, and flings them on the table.
Father Travis, he says with authority, I gathered every word from trusted sources. I assembled the whole report from pieces of information relayed to me by people who were on the ground that day. That terrible day. Even if the report doesn’t say exactly what I said, there is corroboration. It’s not like I wanted to find these things out.
These things aren’t things. Father Travis gestures at the paper. They’re not here.
These words, these connections, these facts. They fell into place. Little by little. They added up! Into an inevitable story. I made diagrams. I procured a box of tacks. Tacks were in my wall. Still there. I drew lines between words and then elided . . . do you know that word? The meaning of that word?
Don’t you love that word? I fit these connections to other connections until a huger connection emerged.
What are you talking about? Elide doesn’t mean that. It means erase.
Or slur together!
Yes, like when you’re drunk, slurring, erasing part of your word.
Well, says Romeo, maybe. Erased the meanings between the salient points. Could have.
And then what?
And then, and then, well. Peter Ravich was there in the Alco parking lot, okay?
Romeo searches his hands, polishes his wrist, and tells Father Travis every detail of what he’d told Peter Ravich. He is still talking when Father Travis gets up. Romeo keeps talking after Father Travis walks through the door. Keeps on talking to the empty coffeepot and waiting chairs, to the walls, to the sun shafts through basement window, to the food smells, to the hands, the knees, the air. Keeps on talking because once he finishes he does not know what will happen next, what awaits him anywhere in his own life, and because he cannot leave with these embarrassing sheets of snot and tears still running down off his face. He stands to follow Father Travis, still talking. Climbs upstairs and through the center aisle of the church, still talking, too stunned at himself to genuflect. Steps out the front door of the church.
From there, he can see down the hill into the marrow of the reservation town. High and mentally blasted as he is, he sees into each heart. Pain is dotted all around, glowing from the deep chest wells of his people. To the west the hearts of the dead still pulse, burning soft and green in their caskets. They stream out pale light from the earth. And to the south there are the buffalo that the tribe has bought for tourism purposes. A darkly gathered congregation. Their hearts also on fire with the dreadful message of their extinction. Their ghostly gathering now. Like us, a symbol of resistance, thinks Romeo. Like us, now rambling around in a little pen of hay getting fat. Like us, their hearts visible as lamps in the dust. To the east, also, the holy dawn of all the earth, every morning of every day, the promise and the weariness. He is so tired, Romeo. Because of course Peter will kill Landreaux. He saw this, has always known it. He doesn’t want to look north because he realizes he’s thought in the counterclockwise fashion that belongs only to the spirit world, where, it appears to him now, he belongs. His place of rest.
So thoroughly relieved and convinced is Romeo in that instant, and so fully does it seize him, the idea of his death, that he casts himself violently headlong down the twenty cement church steps, to the very base.
FATHER TRAVIS DROVE the parish outing van along the BIA road across to County 27 and pulled into the Ravich driveway. Landreaux’s Corolla was parked to one side of the drive, and Peter’s pickup was gone. Nola came out the front door and stood on the fussy little stone pathway to the drive, hands on her hips, full makeup, brightly frosted hair, immaculate pale outfit. She held his gaze pleasantly. As if she’d never seen him before.
Hello? Can I help you?
Is Peter home?
I need to speak to him right away.
Nola gave him a suspicious flounce, and called Maggie. She came out, also smartly dressed.
Maggie could tell immediately that everything was not all right. Not all right again. And she had tried so hard with the family photograph! But clearly, something had happened with her dad. He’d acted weird the whole way back. And now the old Vin Diesel priest.
Can you tell me where your dad went?
I’ll look around, she said to Father Travis. Just wait.
Maggie walked through the house with her radar on. Her mother kept everything so exactly in its exact place that Maggie could always feel, before she even saw, what was different about a room.
Maggie came back outside.
He took his best deer rifle.
Thank you, said Father Travis.
WAYLON DROVE UP just after Father Travis left, and Maggie turned off her radar, right there in the driveway, where he met her. She had asked him over to help her work in the cornfield. Peter had plowed last year’s stubble into the field, but there were already weeds up in the rows. She went inside, and changed into work clothes, put on SP 30 and came out. Together, they walked to the field. It was warm. They each had a hoe they’d keep sharp using the files stuck in the back pockets of their jeans. Maggie’s were short cutoffs. She was a faster or more indifferent weed killer, so she got ahead of Waylon right away. He left a few pickers in the black dirt and stumbled after her. Maggie’s white shirt was tied off at her belly. Her foal’s legs shot down into thick socks, heavy tie boots. A battered straw cowboy hat shaded her face. Her lips were moving to some song in her head. Both of them had heavy brown cotton gloves in their back pockets but they swung their hoes bare-handed. The scent of dry crushed plants, torn dirt, piercing and pure, followed them over the earth. Waylon was proud of his shoes—Jordans—which he shouldn’t have been wearing in the field. His dad had bought them and didn’t have the money. He’d had to sign something to get them—but he wanted people to know that Waylon’s family could afford them. Fine dirt was sifting into the shoes and his sweating feet turned the dust to paste. He kept on swinging the hoe, slicing off pickers, shuffling along behind Maggie in his pasty shoes. One moment he was thinking about washing the shoes out later with a hose, or maybe a wet cloth, and if he would ruin them. The next moment everything changed.
Maggie’s white shirt is slung off. She is chopping weeds in just her bra—sky-colored cups holding two small creamy scoops. She is pale all over because of the sunblock slathering that went on before an incident of possible sun exposure. Her skin is marless. Not a freckle, a fleck of mole, or even a blemish.
The sunblock hasn’t kept her back from glowing a supple golden. Her spine sweatily glistens down into the tiny cutoffs. Her legs are milky white and deerlike. There is dirt up the insides of her calves, thighs, adhering to her sweat like shadow.
Waylon sits down between the rows, on sunny dirt. A small black jumping spider lands on his knee. Stares at him with fierce, pent sorrow. Then pops away. Waylon doesn’t move. He rubs his head as if to rearrange his thoughts.
Maggie moves down the row.
Get up, lazy-ass, she says. Don’t make me do this whole field by myself.
Waylon leaves the hoe on the ground, gets up, and stands before her. She squints up at him, smiling her bad-luck good-luck smile. Right then they are the only people in the universe, yet Waylon is too shy to say out loud what he leans over to whisper against her neck.
Maggie could wind herself through the bush, no matter how snakey and dense, but Waylon was like a big calf and stumbled after her, hair flopping, eyes wide, lips pink and lustrous, skin darkly glowing with sweat until at last she pushed her hand on his chest to make him stop.
Okay, this is the place, she said. My place.
It was an old oak so huge that it had choked out all other brush but the long pale grass they lay on underneath.
LaRose by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes