The Painted Drum, p.5Louise Erdrich
I am usually a devoted sleeper, but tonight I’m wakeful. All night, it seems, I am listening. Thinking. So many ideas float in half-formed and then veer off.
When things are very quiet, the old house ticks. Not regularly, like a clock, but softly all through itself as the slats in the walls change temperature or the plaster tightens or the earth shifts underneath the granite slab foundation. From time to time, the little sounds that the house makes reverberate inside of the drum. My breath does, too. I hear a rising, then a falling. In and out. A greatness, a lightness. I grow heavier, then so inert my body seems without life. Between breaths, I lose feeling. And then my chest fills, a resurrection.
There is another thing that our old house does in the deep of night. I have heard it before and now I wait for it to happen. The house releases the whole day’s footsteps. All day we press down minutely on the wide old floorboards, moving about on small, regular errands, from room to room. It takes hours for the boards to readjust, to squeak back up the nails, for the old fibers of the pinewood to recover their give. As they do so, they reproduce the sounds of footsteps. In the night our maze of pathways is audibly retraced. I am used to it, as is mother, but sometimes a wakeful guest is frightened. I can understand this. For now, as I rise and I stand in half-darkness in the doorway of my bedroom, I hear the distinct creak of footsteps proceeding toward me, then past me, over to my bed. It’s very cold. My skin prickles. I feel the breath of my own passage, as though my dead self and living self briefly met in that doorway to sleep.
A disturbed hush has fallen upon our road. The two young people haunt it more than one would think. It is impossible to pull out onto the gravel without thinking of Davan’s rattling, red car or without imagining the long, slight form of Kendra trailing black scarves as she took her moody ambles, ears plugged with music. After the Assembly of God outpouring for Davan, which left Elsie and me in a daze, we attended the strangely shuttered memorial service for Kendra, along with Krahe’s sister from Vancouver, and seven or eight of Kendra’s drooping friends. Since then I have been afflicted with the pity and guilt that comes over one at the death of a person disliked. I now think of good things about Kendra, and there are many—her affection for her father, her goodness to Davan, even her self-absorbed dramas now seem so innocent: the searchings of an artistic child. I begin to wonder at my own antipathy—or jealousy—and as I do I wonder again at Kurt’s hostility toward Davan. These days Kurt looks stunned and confused, and I see that he’s turned inward, blamed himself for a purely emotional, fatherly mishandling of things, a tampering, a fatal clumsiness. His rage at Davan was disturbing, even brutal, but it was part of his protectiveness and Kurt castigates himself for it now.
Night after night, he comes to me. He never leaves the road. There are no trips to the city. No restless absences, unexplained. Kurt’s step is nearly silent, as he knows just where the stairs creak. When he pauses in the doorway to my room, my two selves stand apart and allow him to pass. Yet I am a realist. I know why he’s always here. One night he says, “You’re getting me through this, you know.” His voice is low and ragged. I can’t bear not knowing anymore.
“You had someone, before,” I say.
There is silence.
“Yes. Not anymore.” There is a lonely pause. “Never again.”
I stare at his face, all shadows in the silver dark, and the terrible, familiar wish to be nothing, to shatter to dust, moves me. His lie kills all feeling. I break along with him and go where he is. Our struggle goes on and on in the blackness. We are like feral children, with no rules. Pain and sex dull grief and we are both in grief, it seems. For me, this is old. I probably know what is happening better than he does because I’ve tried over and over to wreck myself on another human, and always failed. I fail now. For it seems that my sorrow is deep in my bones and I’d have to break every single one to let it out.
He falls asleep with his hand between my legs and his face in my hair. He is weeping in his dreams. I stay awake, considering. He said that he wants to marry me now, that we must always be together. But now that I know he can lie to me, what comfort can there be? His turning to me in such need is not a true statement of his feelings; there is nothing to make of it, really, except that I am near and willing to stay. After a short while, he wakes again, and turns to me and I am there. The night is very black, there is no moon, and I am glad that I’ve put the drum outside my room, on a table at the end of the hall.
When I wake in the morning, he is gone. I roll over, put on my robe, and go down the hall. Not until I’m brushing my teeth do I notice that my face is smeared with blood. Red-brown streaks mark the back of my hands, my arms, my body. I walk back into my room and see that the sheets are splotched and rubbed with signs. It isn’t, somehow, horrifying. I conclude he’s slashed himself, and it seems to me that this is what people do. Later that day, when I walk up the road to see him, and when I find him staring quietly at a certain stone he has been thinking about for years, I touch his shoulder.
“Where have you cut yourself?” I ask.
“Kurt, I should look. They might be deep. You’re bleeding a lot.”
He raises his eyebrows and looks into my face.
“Leave it alone,” he begs.
I return to my house.
As in French novels when the scheming Marquis boasts of a lover I have made her my creature, so I begin to understand that Kurt Krahe is making me his own. His grief is sucking me into an old persona, one I have forced myself to leave behind. Yet I must admit, and this shames me, his tearing need is a thrill to me, and I am convinced that he is mine alone. I am reduced, but I need him, too. And as with all matters of too serious nature, there is absurdity. One morning, instead of contemplating the heft and soul of his sculpture, or driving twenty miles for his favorite dark roast coffee beans, or fixing his garage door, or sitting by his daughter’s grave, he is cutting the dead grass in my yard. Davan Eyke’s job once. Krahe is pushing the finicky red mower now.
I bought that mower for myself. The mower was the first birthday present I ever bought for which I would be the recipient. By which might be assessed the level of self-indulgence I commit. Who buys oneself a lawn mower for her fiftieth birthday? Shouldn’t I have given myself a spa package, a new bathrobe? Shouldn’t I have had someone else to give me a present, perhaps? Of course, I did get one from mother—a cameo strung on a velvet cord. Circa 1910. Italian, with exquisite detail, pink and white shell. I hung it over my bed and have never worn it. But I used my lawn mower last summer. It made me feel good, even when Davan nearly wrecked it, until now. I realize I am dismayed to see Kurt working on my lawn, though I am pleased to see that the machine is holding up well.
Kurt is cutting at a pretty good speed. He prefers the side-to-side strip pattern. I, on the other hand, am the type who cuts the lawn in ever smaller squares. He marches back and forth across the yard. But here’s the thing. The grass doesn’t need cutting. It hasn’t even started growing yet. It’s still practically winter. There is green beneath the unraked thatch, but not a shoot that reaches past the toe’s tip.
I call my mother to the window. We stand together watching our road’s resident artist. He is dressed out of character, like a student’s preppy dad, in dull orange pants, a white golf jacket, thick white socks, and cushiony walking shoes, also white, now mud-stained.
“How did this come about?” I ask.
Elsie gives me the suspicious and assessing look that she should be directing at Krahe. It is not my fault that he’s here. “I have no idea,” she says. “He just appeared.”
“And began to tinker with the lawn mower. Then he took it out.”
I nod. I think of saying to her, Don’t you know what this means? But then she would say in all innocence, Getting the grass cut? And I would have to tell her, No, cut by Krahe. Who has just lost his da
Elsie, when a man as arrogant as Krahe, a man who believes that he is touched by genius, an artist, comes to the house of his lover and cuts her grass during his usual working hours, not to mention those hours he should be devoting to his own personal mourning, he is saying, “Look what you’ve done to me. Observe my devotion. My wastage of genius hours on your lawn. Here I am cutting your grass, which will grow back. While I could have been creating something out of my sorrow, for the ages.”
But of course it would go further.
“And, darling,” he would say, “now that I’ve wasted time on your lawn, I expect that you will spend your time (much different from wasting it, as I am a genius and you are not) on me. You are my creature.”
I turn away from the window. My thoughts are too cynical. Perhaps I should see his action as another irrational sign of his bewilderment. I should treat him gently—as one comforts those caught in the unruly dictates of their mourning—but the drone of the mower on the other side of the house drills my thoughts and I quickly leave, jump into the car, and drive off, too fast.
There is a man at the isolated end of the road who exists in the firm conviction that he is an American Indian—apparently, though, he cannot decide which kind. He probably has no tribal blood whatsoever—he knows that—though his origins are complicated by the vastness of his family, who came over on the next boat after the Mayflower. They are originally the same family as the one whose estate I’m handling (and thieving from, I remind myself)—the Tatros. Except that the Tatros are not all related anymore. They’ve lived here and there in the town and on the flats for as long as the town has been here. In fact, they owned the original land grant and the town’s main road was named for Colonel John Tipton Tatro. They are the Tatros of Tatro Road and Tipton Hall and Tatro Fairgrounds and, up until now, of Tatro Farm. Having sold the land grant and bought bits of property here and there, they are less prominent, and some have fallen onto the fringes, like outbred dogs. Yet they are still a force. There is always the peculiar feeling that they could spread, once again, link acreage, and take over. Probably not Squaw Man Tatro, though. That’s what he’s sometimes called. His name is really Everett. He’s nicknamed Kit. He’s got an Indian name, too, one that sounds like something from an old gunslinger movie or a Karl May novel. It might be White Owl, same as the drugstore cigars. At any rate, as I drive toward the clarity of my bank account, there beside the road is Kit Tatro, hitchhiking. He wears jeans, a vest of some poorly tanned animal hide, a salmon-colored polyester shirt, the kind that transforms human sweat to toxic gas. The fumes waft in when I roll down the window to ask his destination. There is a method to his decoration that I can’t read. He is cleanly shaven and his longish gray-brown hair is clipped more tidily than usual. That indicates grooming. Yet there is the awful odor. Around his neck he wears five or six leather strings from which hang various amulets. At first glance, I see a bear’s claw, a small tusk of some sort, a brown leather pouch that looks like it contains herbs, or maybe human knuckle bones. He thrusts his head a bit wildly in and says he has to visit the bank.
“Happens I’m going there. But—”
“I know. I stink.” He opens the door and slides into the passenger’s seat. “I’ve been tanning hides.”
I keep the windows open and put the air on full blast. The smell seems more bearable at first when I know it isn’t actually Kit, and then I think of the skins and the whole mess of scraping them down and somehow I would rather smell Tatro again. Every time I’ve been tempted to tell him that my mother is an actual American Indian, an Ojibwe, something about Kit Tatro has stopped me—the sight of some newly skinned creature in his yard. Or, as now, a certain look he has, or smell. At least it isn’t far to town. What we call the bank is just an automated teller machine at the center store. Once the store was named Tatro’s, of course. For some reason the place has recently been remodeled on the outside to resemble a general store out of the Old West. The building is low and square with a tall false front and a sign painted with fake old-timey serifed letters. So in a way, Kit Tatro fits there. A hangdog mountain man come down to the settlement for grub.
“I’ve been doing more research on my genealogy,” he says. “I’ve come a cropper on the great-grandmother’s side, though I still think she must have been an Iroquois. They would have hid it for the shame.” He sounds a note of indignation and despair. “Always the secrecy, the hushed voices! Nobody will say what it was my great-grandfather did, who he married, what she was, who she was.”
“It’s so complicated,” I sympathize, stopping the car, opening my door quickly. Kit gets out too, and we walk up to the cash machine together. There is a light breeze blowing. I step upwind of him. He lets me go first and studiously looks away as I tap in my PIN. The machine offers me a little stack of money; I take it, and walk over to the store to buy some cream, a six-pack of Krahe’s favorite beer, a can of ginger ale, a newspaper, and a muffin.
“I think the best kind is lemon poppy seed,” says Kit. He holds out a root beer to show the teen behind the cash register, pays, and we walk out the door together. A ride home is assumed. At least he’s changed my focus somewhat, and I’ve stopped dwelling on Krahe’s lawn cutting. I’ve always been a little curious about Kit’s passion to be an Indian. It seems a lonely obsession—I never see him with other Indians or would-be Natives. And as the point is to have a tribe and belong to a specific people, I wonder what he gets out of his fantasy. But of course, he explains on the way home, his search is about making some connection. Only connect, he says, absurdly, and adds, Maybe E. M. Forster was an Iroquois at heart. Once he knows for certain where to connect, maybe everything about him will fall into place. Then again, maybe Kit Tatro irritates me because at some level I understand his longing and confusion all too well. I let him out at the turnoff to his house, and keep the windows wide open the rest of the way.
When I walk into the house, I see immediately that Elsie is serving Krahe a cup of hot chocolate. He’s gotten a chill—cutting the grass! It upsets me to see that she’s poured the chocolate into one of her favorite cups—exquisitely etched and hand-painted, one of an incomplete set she bought before an estate sale. She’s put the cup under hot water to warm first, then dried it, her little trick, to prevent a skin forming on the milk. She has given up her disapprobation, or her fear of my being used, and she has decided to encourage him, I fear. A low sensation of hurt boils up in me, its source mysterious. Why, now, has she decided to stop looking the other way? Because she can’t. I see now that the grass cutting is Kurt’s way of bringing our relationship into the open. He’s doffed his jacket. They are talking in normal, convivial tones about the town road agent and how he has suggested inserting speed bumps on the straight, paved section of Revival Road.
“He says he’s clocked some going seventy.” They both nod, together, almost in unison. Then a stiff break, a beat of silence as both remember Davan’s run and wish to veer away from unsteady ground. I have timed my entrance perfectly. With relief, both realize that I am standing in the kitchen entrance.
“Would you care for some hot chocolate?” says Elsie, getting up to fetch another of her special cups from the high shelf of the cupboard.
“Sit down!” Krahe rises to give me his chair, a gesture of old-fashioned courtesy that might touch me, as he is not at all chivalrous, except that I feel so awkward and suspicious.
“Thanks for cutting the grass.” I roughly pull a different chair out and plop down. I find myself glaring at the cup in his hand. “It’s very thoughtful of you. And very unlike you,” I add once Elsie’s back is turned. “You’ve got more important things to concern yourself with. I’ve got someone else to cut the grass, anyway.”
Not true, but I’m determined to quash Krahe’s possible repetition of this favor, no matter w
“Who?” says Elsie, overhearing me.
I turn, widen my eyes, and blink meaningfully at her, but she is bending to place the chocolate before me. I am stung by this fake demure look of hers—the downcast eyelashes hide righteous glee and it seems to me, suddenly, they are a they, in cahoots. Elsie has decided something. She’s ahead of me. I am bewildered. And I’m also caught in my grass-cutting lie, because they know everyone I know, and I wouldn’t ask a stranger, and they’ll expect whomever I mention to come and cut the grass. I open my mouth not knowing what I’ll blurt and out comes the name Kit Tatro. It makes sense, as I’ve just dropped him off, that his name should still be on my tongue. Now I’ll have to rush back and persuade him to cut our lawn before either mother or Krahe find and question him.
“Oh, Squaw Man,” says Krahe, dismissive. “He doesn’t even cut his own lawn.”
“He needs the money.” True enough. I gulp down the chocolate too fast, scald my throat, and rise with a rude abruptness.
“And for your information, squaw means vagina, or rather, cunt. It is an insult.”
“Oh,” says Krahe. His eyes flicker as he scrambles for a light tone. “Knowing Tatro, he’d probably find that a compliment.”
“An insult to us,” I say, indicating Elsie, who turns away to show she’ll have no part of this. I am the one embarrassing her. It is then that I am positive she is rejecting me, pushing me out the door toward Krahe. Perhaps she is tired of the secrecy, or the discretion, really, but wasn’t it for her benefit? Perhaps she wants to set me free, thereby invalidating all we have carefully constructed, cheapening all that I’ve given up in order to stay with her. I don’t want to be free in that way. Krahe pretends not to notice that I am standing now, breathing hard, upset, ready to escort him out. He continues the thread of a conversation that he and Elsie had seemingly left unfinished.
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes