Larose, p.36
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       LaRose, p.36
 

           Louise Erdrich

  HOLLIS SET OUT chairs, put away random lawn equipment, plastic bats, things that did not belong. He moved along swift and light, doing anything they wanted. The party, for him! He raced around. Taking directions. A graduation party. He still didn’t know how to feel. His morose dark vibe was definitely compromised. He caught himself smiling. His party was the weekend before school graduation. Everyone was having their parties then, or the week after, and everyone was also making the rounds. Hollis’s party was on Sunday in the late afternoon—just the right time to catch everyone all partied out from the night before, needing hangover soup and more food, but not the kind of crowd that would stay all night. The photos of the graduating seniors had been published in the newspaper. Everybody knew whose houses were having parties. They would have endless guests and guests of guests. You never knew how many people. So far they had borrowed ten Crock-Pots, and Emmaline had scored a case of Famous Dave’s BBQ sauce, sell-by date elapsed.

  Barbecue sauce never goes bad, right?

  Never!

  Famous Dave was a cultural hero, a successful barbecue entrepreneur Ojibwe guy with chain outlets.

  Emmaline had plugged the slow cookers into every kitchen outlet, laid the big pieces of beef chuck inside, covered them with sauce, and set them on low overnight. On party day everybody woke smelling the overpowering barbecue smell. It wasn’t, somehow, a wake-up smell. They opened the windows. Landreaux separated the barbecue meat with two forks and kept the cookers on. By the afternoon, it would be perfect. Emmaline had already made the meatball soup and frozen it. There would be a meat soup, which the old people preferred.

  The weeds, constantly mowed, now resembled grass, and there was even grass, quack grass, an unkillable type of grass. The yard was bounded by plastic fold-out tables, borrowed from Emmaline’s school. There were lawn chairs, powwow chairs, folding chairs. Over on the side of the yard, they placed a pop-up arbor that Emmaline said was an investment. There would be four more graduation parties, after all, in the coming years. Josette spread Coochy’s worn Power Rangers sheet on the food table, then took the sheet off, refolded it.

  Not festive.

  Emmaline said they could use her flowered queen bedsheet.

  Josette was extremely touched.

  But Mom. People will spill stuff. Your best sheet will get ruined.

  I’ll soak it after.

  No, I’ll use your sheet for the card and gift table.

  Josette folded and refolded her parents’ bedsheet, smoothed it onto the folding card table. She draped her own plain purple-red sheet on the long rectangular fold-out food table. Barbecue sauce would hardly show. They used the Power Rangers sheet wrong side out for the salad table. Josette stood back, cocked her head to the side. The tables had a gracious effect, standing there, legs hidden. She imagined where the food would go. Crock-Pots on the purple table, extension cords plugged into extension cords, running into the windows of the house, keeping the meats on low. Bread would go beside the meat in the big aluminum bowls, buns still in their plastic bags so they’d stay soft. She’d bought the sesame seeded ones. A little extra. There were also regular salads, macaroni, lettuce, and her own semifamous potato salad.

  The day before, she had made Hollis and Coochy peel two twenty-pound sacks of potatoes. She had cut them into bite-size chunks and boiled them, not too soft. Overnight she had let the big dishpans of potatoes cool and marinate in oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and diced onions. She had left them in the basement, on top of the washing machine, covered with clean dish towels. Now Josette left off planning and brought the cooled-off potatoes upstairs. Carefully, she stirred in mayonnaise cut with enough mustard to give that jazzy goldeny color. But not too much mustard flavor. She diced a couple of jars of pickles, stirred them in too. Snow had hard-boiled a dozen eggs, plunging them into cold water so they didn’t grow green fuzz on the yolks. Over the bumpy yellow surface of the big green, orange, and blue plastic bowls of salad, they now laid the sliced eggs, then stippled the eggs with shakes of paprika. Josette plucked up one potato that was sticking out. Ate it. Nodded at the dishpan of salad with a slow, sage frown.

  After the boys put out the coolers of pop, covered with coins of bought ice, and the big pot of wild rice and the cardboard box of frybreads, after the chokecherry jellies were opened, and the knives, spoons, and forks were set out in coffee cups, after the plastic bags of hamburger buns were opened and ready and then the potato salads, the bowls again covered with dish towels, Josette and Snow carried out the sheet cakes. They had turned out so well! The raised lettering was crisp in the sugar icing. The frosting diploma was perfectly curled at either end. The swirled tans in the camouflage icing looked exactly right. Josette had matched the pattern to Hollis’s uniform without letting him know. But she had changed the words. She had taken off the You Go. The cake had no words because there were no words.

  She was keeping track of North Dakota Guard units: the 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion had entered Iraq at midnight on April 27. She was pretty sure that they were in charge of patrolling the roads for I.E.D.s.

  Snow and Josette arranged cakes on the end of the two food tables, next to a vase of fresh lilacs. There was a large knife, napkins, paper cake plates. A spatula for each cake. They stepped back, looking at everything. They wouldn’t take the plastic covers off the cakes, or cut them, until they had been admired. Until the honor song was sung. Until after everyone had made their speeches, congratulating Hollis.

  The guests parked on the dirt drive, then the grass, then the not-grass, then along the main road. The high school kids kept coming because everybody liked Hollis and knew his family would throw a big feast, lots of food. Cases of beer in the trunks of their cars, they came, the girls with graduation cards for Hollis. Mrs. Peace and Malvern arrived, driven by Sam Eagleboy in his low-slung maroon Oldsmobile. Zack came, off duty. Bap drove Ottie, and Landreaux strode out to help unfold Ottie’s wheelchair from the trunk and get him settled into it, under the awning in the backyard, with the elders, where they could watch the milling young people.

  Don’t put Ottie near those pretty young girls, said Bap. They’ll try and take my man.

  Ottie touched her hand.

  The young people’s parents were arriving. Their younger brothers and sisters came too, tumbling out of the cars to race toward the snacks. Peter, Nola, and Maggie walked over to the house. Peter quietly shook hands all around. He got Nola a folding lawn chair. They sat together near the arbor, in half-shade at the edge of the yard. Soon the dog ambled up and settled down, leaning incrementally closer to Nola’s ankle until he touched and she let him stay. She had decided to come to the party. Strictly speaking, it did not make sense. Yet there was someone here with Nola’s body, voice, name. Soon she was eating a plate of barbecue with a dog warm along her ankle. Peter wiped sweat off his temples, giddy with effort. Compartmentalizing on such a high level was a strain. But Landreaux had invited him, not a word about what had happened. Was it some kind of traditional Landreaux thing or did it just mean that now life should go on? Maggie put their graduation card with the twenty-five-dollar check into Hollis’s basket. Then she went behind the tables to help her sisters dish out the food. After a while, Nola saw the husky boy who helped them now with farmwork sometimes. Waylon stood next to her daughter. He bent over, said something. Maggie shot her eyes up to him and put down the spoon.

  I see, thought Nola. I know.

  She understood herself and, in some ways, she understood her daughter.

  Romeo was suddenly at the party now. Maybe he had parked far down the road, or hitched. He sat with the old people. Sam Eagleboy was talking about Mission Accomplished. Romeo said that Bush had looked okay in the jumpsuit, then his voice changed. A Hopi mom had died first—where was acknowledgment of sacrifice? The humility?

  The old people stared at him, and nodded.

  Hundred-day war, said Romeo.

  All of a sudden he felt like he might faint. How odd. He rose and ghost-walked ov
er to the edge of the yard and stood looking off into the deep green woods. That is our home, he thought, where we came from. And now we are living high on the hog. And our young boys are once again fighting for what used to be the enemy flag. Don’t have to scramble around for irony, or meat. There’s Crock-Pots full, and all that other food. There is Landreaux, whom I nearly got killed, so I must be satisfied with that. And Emmaline who knows I almost killed her man and so, now, will never love me. But Hollis. Hollis, whom it was a far better thing I did to let him go. But here he is, all grown up, and I have swum through my days until recently when I became aware. Too aware. My job making something out of me. And the pain in my body strangely as I move around beginning to subside. As though I’ve been cranked up wrong ever since Landreaux fell on me and by throwing myself down the church steps, I am starting to get cranked around right.

  For he had risen from the church steps, Romeo, risen like one dead and walked alone, without pain, without his old familiar enemy, down the hill. As the days went on the bruises had healed. They hadn’t hurt much, well, because he had some prescription left, but then. Nada. He needed less. Then almost nothing. Something shocking—it was as if his bones were slowly shifting, inside of him, back into place. Over thirty years before, Landreaux had crashed off a Minneapolis bridge support; in landing violently he had crushed the right side of Romeo’s body. Two weeks ago, Romeo had thrown himself down a wicked series of concrete steps, landing on his left side. Then he’d gotten up and it was a miracle—flat-out. Nobody there to witness, nobody there to pity him, and, sadly, nobody else around to be thoroughly impressed. Somehow the fall had not killed him but fixed him, pushing everything all back together. That’s how it felt. A mysterious inner alignment was occurring. Romeo was increasingly calm right down the center. He could even balance with his eyes closed, sign of a healthy mountain climber.

  Past him, around the elders, not noticing that the elders or her mother noticed them, intent only on themselves, Maggie slipped with Waylon into the woods.

  LaRose was given an eagle feather and an abalone shell containing a ball of smoking sage. He went around smudging the food. He brushed the holy smoke over the electric cookers, casserole dishes, cakes, the tables, and the basket of cards. He went around to the elders, who pulled the smoke over their heads, as did his sisters, and Hollis. Then the sage was ash. LaRose made a plate with a taste of everything, even a secret corner of cake, and a pinch of tobacco. He went down the side of the yard and stepped off into the trees, put the plate down at the base of a birch tree. He stood beside the tree, staring through new leaves, toward the spot he’d fasted, where Dusty and all of the others had visited him. LaRose didn’t know what to say to them, if they were out there. Oh well, he’d treat them like regular people.

  You’re invited, he said in a normal voice.

  When he returned, the yard around the house was crowded with people talking, filling plates with food, laughing and laughing, like, well, a bunch of Indians. So many people were eating that all the chairs were taken, then the back steps, the front steps. Towels were laid out on top of the cars so girls wouldn’t stain their flouncy skirts with car dirt. People stood talking with plates of food in their hands, eating and eating because the food was top-shelf. Everybody said so. Top-shelf. People brought random offerings, too. Loaves of bread. Packages of chips, salsa, cookies.

  When it was time for the cake, Hollis was called forward by Landreaux. Then Hollis went into the crowd, over to the edge of the yard, and stood before Romeo.

  Yeah? said Romeo.

  Hollis took his arm.

  Me?

  Come on.

  As Hollis walked Romeo up to stand with him at the cakes, Romeo knew, just knew! It had been written in his life that someday he would be walking on air. Now here he was, floating up to the front of the gathering. Everything was passing by him slowly. He could see every detail. The tucked-in shirts. The girls in bright dresses, yellow, pink. And here he was, walking past them beside his son, just regular. No twisted lurch. Before the tables, he stood, aligned from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, beside his son, not hunched over. Did people notice? They must have, but nobody commented. Romeo felt it strongly, though. Rooted, he was rooted right there. He was smiling, maybe, put his hand to his face to feel if that was true.

  Ordinarily, at this moment, they would have asked Father Travis to say a prayer. Nobody had thought of asking the new priest. People resented having been assigned a priest named Father Bohner. As if, where else could he go? And you couldn’t call him Father Dick. It wasn’t right.

  Emmaline stood on the other side of Hollis. Her eyes were fixed on Landreaux in a neutral way, not exactly warm, but not with the usual bitter impatience. Josette noticed.

  Landreaux sang an Honor Song. His voice was innocent and full. As always, his voice warmed people. Then he asked Romeo to say a few words.

  The thing to do at that moment was to speak from the heart. Romeo froze. People always said speak from the heart. What would that even mean? Speak from the squashed flask, the dead shoe, cheap cut of meat pulsing in his chest? Speak from the old prune of crapped-on hopes? Well then, be brief. Romeo blinked in panic. He shambled a few steps forward and put his hand on his jaw.

  So he . . . Romeo nodded at Landreaux.

  So I . . . Romeo nodded at Hollis.

  Not much good as a father, said Romeo. Me. Not much good as a mother. Some people don’t have an alternative. His voice gathered a little strength.

  No alternative to being humble, said Romeo. Because I don’t know how to do stuff right. I just grab what I see. That’s how I am. So when Emmaline . . .

  Romeo ducked his head in Emmaline’s direction.

  So when Emmaline and my old teacher, my young teacher, haha, Mrs. Peace over there, and so when Landreaux. They took in my baby and they brought him up. And here he is. A graduate here. Romeo’s voice box was shutting off. He closed his eyes.

  I don’t have much to offer, as a person. People say I am a waste and that’s being generous. But I was surprised to get a job this year. Even more surprised I kept it. Don’t fall down in a fit now, for shock, now, I banked the money.

  Romeo reached into his back pocket, took out a brown plastic checkbook. He held the checkbook in both hands, and leaned over with a ceremonial bow. He offered the checkbook to Hollis, who in surprise accepted it.

  There’s three thousand in there, he said to Hollis. I live a slight kind of life. So here you can start off to college. Quit the National Guards, my boy.

  Hollis stepped forward and put his arms around Romeo, and as the two hugged, Romeo heard people clapping.

  Well, fuck me, thought Romeo, after the hug stopped and he stepped back. His faucets were going to burst.

  His mom would be so proud, said Romeo all of a sudden, loudly, throwing his arms wide.

  Hollis was looking at his father in concentration.

  Who was she?

  Charisma with a K, Lee with an i. Karisma Li.

  Karisma Li? That sounds like a . . . Hollis was about to say name of an exotic dancer, stripper, but he stopped, perturbed.

  Yes, said Romeo, I lost her to a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan.

  Let’s eat the cake now, said Josette, touching her mother’s arm. No more speeches.

  Wait!

  Sam walked smoothly forward holding out an eagle feather. It was a mature golden eagle tail feather, beaded at the base with leather fringe swooping down.

  The most handsome feather I ever seen, hissed Malvern. He sundanced with that there feather, Sam. He dressed that feather up for Hollis.

  Sam faced Hollis and said a prayer in Ojibwe. Everybody shushed everybody. The people who understood Ojibwe couldn’t hear, but now Sam was talking straight to Hollis. LaRose was listening as hard as he could.

  As he listened, the floaty feeling of being with those other people came over LaRose, and he felt them come out of the woods. They wandered up and stood behind him. He f
elt their sympathy and curiosity. As he felt them move closer, LaRose noticed that the colors of the clothing that the living people wore sharpened and brightened. Yet he heard each word that the other people said distinctly, though all together it was a babble. He watched as they moved together and apart, frowned or laughed, in a dance of ordinary joy that kept moving and vanishing as soon as it happened, and moving again. More of the transparent people came walking out of the trees and stood with the others. Dusty wanted some cake. LaRose told him go ahead, and he walked over and got some cake. Nobody noticed Dusty was there except the dog, and perhaps Dusty’s mother, who turned in his direction and smiled in a perplexed way. The old-time woman with the feather in her hat said, You wait, they are going to get a package and it will be my time-polished bones. Ignatia walked slowly, but without the oxygen now. Two women he did not remember said, with amused affection, That Maggie. Watch out for her. Others spoke about how Hollis and Josette made such a good couple and how Ottie had one night told them to stand by the gate. He would be over there soon. Just look at him. He’s on his way. They sat on chairs made of air and fanned their faces with transparent leaves. They spoke in both languages.

  We love you, don’t cry.

  Sorrow eats time.

  Be patient.

  Time eats sorrow.

  Josette served up the first piece of cake.

  This is the most beautiful cake ever, said Hollis, his voice scratchy with emotion.

  Wait! Wait for the cake song!

  Oh no, said Josette. Cake song?

  It was Randall, who had come late, but made his way straight to the front to stand with Landreaux. He had a hand drum and a big grin. Randall and Landreaux began to sing a song about how sweet the cake was, all full of sweetness like the life before Hollis, like the love everyone had for Hollis, and the love that Hollis felt for his people. It was a long-winded song and Hollis stood there in front of everyone, feeling a little foolish, holding his piece of cake, nodding, serious but filled with the happiness of the moment, though awkward, the sweetness, smiling along with the song.

 
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