A half dead hollow man walks home from tribal jail. Malt liquor cans in his pockets, he spent the last three months of lease checks on alcohol. Like an Indian scarecrow, he sways. His traditional Lakota hair braids are always oiled, the one part of himself well-kept and proud. Last of few native Lakota speakers, he knows songs unsung beneath skyscraper lights. He’ll sing them again, crying by a creek near the cabin where his auntie raised him.
Drinking through a few more cans, he heads for the mercury light on the hill. He never visits his cousins sober. The oldest, it shames him to be surrounded by their children, their lives away from the pitfall of addiction.
“You guys think you got me all figured out, huh. Well, just wait, I’m gonna be somebody, gonna do something with my life yet.”
He hollers, escorted to the door by his cousin’s husband. That doesn’t go as planned. Started well enough, handed a friendly cup of coffee, reminiscing on bygone childhood memories. Fortifying his coffee with whiskey, they admonish him.
“Not in front of the kids, time for you to go cousin,” they told him. A single dime store rose falls from his pocket as he is ushered outside.
“Hey wait, let go, that’s important…”
He scrambles to pick up the rose, creasing it back into a dogeared Gideon Bible he carries in his coat. His family is astonished; he’s not known for floral mementos.
Back in his cabin, he drinks until too numb to stand. The old wood stove burns a bit warmer than the draft blowing through holes in the wall. He was married once. Her eyes are the color of sepia photographs. Her birthday is in April, shrouded by mist and rain. He has not forgotten her. When he passes out, she appears in his dreams. Her perfume hangs soft like wood smoke from a distant chimney.
In the morning, he nails boards across the windows and doors. It’s time. He’ll be gone for a while. Every year, he disappears for several months. His family assumes he got thrown back in jail, or came into some money and flitted up to Rapid City.
He hails passing cars, but none stop for a rough-looking Indian. He walks miles, the summer heat wavering glassy on the horizon. He has seen fifty years now. The beginning of what is likely cirrhosis fatigues him. Yet, the motion of placing one step in front of the other calms him.
Where did all that time go? The years have been a drunken oblivious blur. It seems as if the liquor he stole from an uncle when he was thirteen was a black hole; he was sucked in and became an old man inside.
He puts his thumb down. No one will pick him up. He starts walking. He tries to savor the pain in his soles, the heat baking his back. When he’s too tired, he hides in the ditch to rest. In every town he passes, he steals vegetables from gardens, buys tins of Vienna sausages from gas stations. Sometimes he lingers for a couple days, does odd jobs for cash. He slowly progresses north this way, as he has the last fifteen years.
A road that says “EAGLE BUTTE: 3 MILES” looms after a month. These endless hills of grass are hers. They formed her into being, gave her a name, and eventually took her back into their cold embrace. She slept in his arms, but he never owned her; she belonged only to the tangerine sky, the clouds stretching into what seemed like forever.
Pages turn until he gets to the rose, creased somewhere in the book of Job. The summer light is just beginning to set. Red tones wash the sun-bleached dirt. Straightening his collar, combing his hair, he walks through the cemetery gates.
“I’ve missed you, my wife,” he says, gently placing the rose near her plaque. Rust has almost eaten her name. He’ll make her a new one before he goes home. For now, he crouches beside the grave.
He can see her black hair, trailing like ribbons in the sunset. Her sepia eyes peer into him from the cottonwood trees. She is everywhere, she is in everything. He wishes he could start this life over, have another shot at becoming the man he wished to be. He wishes this pathetic shell of addictions was in the ground instead of her.
Nothing in him was worthy of love, so he never understood her. Even his own parents had discarded him. He suspected his very Creator placed him on this earth as a cruel joke. So why should this beautiful woman encourage him to put down the bottle and fulfill his dream of being a teacher? Why should she believe in him, when he never believed in himself? Why did she find good where everyone else only found problems? Her love scared him. It went against the world’s judgment of him.
He became meaner, more erratic in his drinking. He even hit her once. The morning after, he looked for her to say sorry. Yet while he was passed out, she had packed her few possessions and left. He never bothered her, never inquired where she had gone. He knew she was better off without him.
Many years later, he saw her obituary. Somehow, his feet moved down many roads. Somehow his hands acquired a single rose. He walked many miles across the summer to say goodbye. If only the heat in his eyes, the blisters on his feet could atone. He did love her, in his broken, fallible way.
When he came back, he stopped at his cousin’s again. He told about the voyage he took to Eagle Butte every year. I was there. I sat at the table and listened. I have never known so much beauty and damnation entwined in one man.