by SHANN RAY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & enjamin Killsnight sat in an easy chair in his living room after dark, clear amber drink in hand, staring straight ahead. She was out getting bent again, while he stayed home. He'd lived in Spokane for some time, clean reality inside the dream, young and strong in the city, director of youth programs for the downtown YMCA, Northern Cheyenne and proud. But being away from his people, he had to admit he'd gone wrong. Urban time all speed, nothing like rez time, and he didn't like it, even if he was well-liked in city league basketball and at work and nearly everywhere he went.
Grandson of Russell Killsnight, he'd borrowed his grandfather's elk-bone breastplate, framed it in a shadow box and placed it over the cherry-wood mantle of the fireplace. Small house, 700 square feet, down in the tight-fit tracts of Peaceful Valley and back west toward I-90. He'd aligned five white colonnade candles on the tile below the mantle, and now their bright fires shone in the dark like a small upside-down sky.
In America, he thought, if you were to be a man, and if you wanted a woman, you borrowed boldness. Each man had it to varying degrees, the verve that drew women, the force, the fa & ccedil;ade, the dream with which he governed his own interplay of looks and presence and urgency, such urgency. He thought of his wife, Sadie. For her, he'd always had nothing but urgency.
The next day, near dusk, he drove slow on I-90, a bit delirious from the vodka he'd taken from his cache in the fill water of the toilet at work -- great spot, even lifting the back you couldn't see the bottle, labelless, there under the buoy. Had to reach for it. Perfect. He drove east toward Idaho, away from all the lights. Messy, exultant, and married at 23, he was 25 now, gracious, clean-faced, one of the Beautiful People, an athlete, and in the seat next to him was his White woman wife, made like a feather, shaft of bones and thin body illumined, face to the side, staring out the window as the freeway, grey-black, set itself along the gunmetal grey of the river. He wanted to find a turnout somewhere between here and Coeur d'Alene. Park the car. Stare at the river. Drink together.
He'd seen three of his friends die his senior year of high school at St. Labre, the Catholic school 30 miles east of Lame Deer back home on the edge of the reservation in southeast Montana. He'd known them all since kindergarten. He looked at Sadie in the passenger seat and knew she struggled with life and with herself, and he wondered what kept people alive. After his father's death from alcohol, Benjamin had no mother to speak of, and thinking of it he always felt mortified. Sadie, for her part, had no father. Different lives, same story.
Joe Big Head hung himself in his own bedroom, Elmore Running Dog got knifed in the chest in broad daylight, and Elias Pretty Horse was shot in the head at a party in Plenty Coups on the Crow rez, the bullet piercing the skull, killing him instantly. Even Benjamin's grandfather Russell had taken the tribe's money, boarded a train on the Highline bound for Spokane and never returned. In a different light, when Benjamin left the rez for Spokane, he borrowed what he remembered of the swagger of his father, drunk or not, the way he could look the White man in the eye and smile, and it led Benjamin to an Associate Arts degree from Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon, where he'd played shooting guard, and on to a B.A. in physical education from Eastern Washington University.
Benjamin had been a drinker since an older cousin started him on it in grade school. Same older cousin forced a drunk Sioux woman on him when Ben was 11, telling her to go on ahead and take his virginity. Ben ran from the house crying.
Scanning the river from a lookout near the state line, Sadie drunk and gone in his lap, Benjamin made what seemed like an unlikely pact with heaven... with the Holy Spirit, she'd say if she was awake... the Great Spirit, he'd counter... and they'd smile. A pistol full of verve and fire. That was her. She didn't care who she spoke to, or about what. She was thin and fast and beautiful, and seeing her passed out again sobered him. He brushed the hair back to see her face. Hard to hold... that one, he thought. Elusive as the wind. But admittedly, he loved her like he loved oxygen. So right then and there, he vowed to stop drinking.
Much harder than he imagined, it took three years to celebrate his first full year of sobriety, and when it happened he called his brother, Titus, back in Lame Deer to tell him. Benjamin had gotten a monkey fist from his sponsor that night, leather necklace with a small leather knot attached to it signifying a year free. Sadie wasn't into it. "Parched, enit," Titus said, laughing. Then he said, "I got a daughter now." He said it so quiet Benjamin wasn't sure he heard.
"A daughter?" Benjamin said, rolling the monkey fist between thumb and forefinger.
"Yeah," Titus answered. "Her name is Rachel."
A daughter, thought Benjamin, I'm her uncle, and when he hung up the phone he opened his front door and whooped at the top of his lungs.
In winter of that year, Benjamin caught Sadie sleeping with his best friend from high school, Jack Plenty Buffalo, who was visiting from Lame Deer. Benjamin threw Jack naked out the back door, beat him unconscious, and broke out three of his teeth. Benjamin and Sadie revived Jack, and that night, Benjamin, like a good rez boy, forgave all and relapsed, sucking beer and hard liquor with Sadie and Jack until past two, sometimes laughing and hacking so hard he cried. In the morning Jack left. That night, Benjamin drove Northwest Boulevard and cut down across the river and out over the river valley to attend the AA meeting in a back room at the Unitarian Universalist Church. His wife, to her credit, accompanied him.
He worked on borrowed time. Little in the way of wisdom. But his thoughts seemed to come cleaner now, less muddied.
A month into his second real sobriety, he found Sadie naked and passed out on the couch with a recent AA group member named Richard. Benjamin was more prepared this time. He left a note in the bathroom, saying, I love you, Sadie. I want to stay married to you. Are you willing to give up drinking? He left the house and ate dinner with his sponsor, a man with 30 years' sobriety who was a member of the Spokane Tribe. When they were through talking, they stood outside his sponsor's van and lit sweetgrass and prayed together and when Benjamin came home at 11 pm, Sadie was gone. Her own message, placed on his pillow, written in clean blue cursive on a yellow pastel sticky note, said I'm sorry.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or her part, Sadie took the small stash of money they had and bought a bus ticket to Seattle and when she arrived she promptly went to Pike Place Market and panhandled enough change to buy three bottles of cheap wine, drinking each one quickly until she passed out on the grass in a public square overlooking the Sound. Unconscious, she was arrested and carried to jail.
She woke on a hard metal bench inside a holding cell and stared at the wall and whispered, "He was nothing to me." She bit at her cuticles, making them bleed. Her face felt swollen. She went from jail to a homeless shelter for women where the state let her work off her fine, and when she'd paid her debt she wandered out into the night where after midnight she found a job as a cocktail waitress. She passed like a day-ghost between the shelter and the bar until she'd made enough money for a one-room apartment in the flats south of downtown. She worked, kept the apartment very clean, and drank large quantities daily.
After nearly a year, and a string of men, she was kicked out for not paying rent. She kept working and drinking and went back to living at the shelter, sleeping during the day, rising at night, and it was at night again when a man approached her in the dark hull of the bar and said, I've been watching you, and she said, Thanks, and when the night ended she went with him to his single-wide trailer in the slipshod housing, disjointed, largely colorless, south of the industrial zone. She enjoyed the company. It felt good to forget everything, though she knew it amounted only to emptiness. Laying together, drunk and high, his question barely registered... "You said you were married. Tell me about your husband?" The answer came almost without volition: "He is nothing to me."
She kept on like this for six months, before leaving the man and the job the same day and walking among the abandoned storefronts downtown, letting her feet shuffle, panhandling, drinking until she found an alcove in an alley she thought lent enough shelter to avoid being taken to jail again. She leaned a long slab of soiled cardboard over her body and slept. Night following day she trudged and slept and drank and gathered a little food, and traded clothes once at the House of Charity off Royal St. downtown... continuing this way for near a month, undiscovered. At the end of it she walked into the public restroom in the small park above the Alaskan Way Viaduct. She stared at her face, pocked and messy and streaked with dirt. Her eyes looked foreign and blown out.
Just outside the bathroom a middle-aged White man in a pinstriped business suit propositioned her, saying he'd pay for favors. She refused and walked back into the bathroom. She took off her coat, a light windbreaker she'd kept since Spokane, then removed her shirt and her skirt and used the hand soap to wash her upper body, her face, her hair. She put her head beneath the hand dryer and dried her hair, combing it with her fingers. She took her clothes and worked the larger blemishes, rubbing the soap to a lather, rinsing each stain and repeating the process until she thought the clothing looked respectable. It took a long time. She had patience. She dried her shirt and skirt and coat under the hair dryer. When it was done she folded her coat neatly, put her clothes back on and tucked the shirt in and looked at herself in the mirror again. The shirt was dark blue, overly large, shapeless. It looked fine now. The skirt was dated, but decent. Long-sleeve shirt, long skirt; they covered her bruises well enough. Her face seemed not her own but at least it wasn't filthy anymore. She strode outside and walked to the area downtown where the glass and metal glowed and the people came from their high-powered jobs in droves. Happy hour, they'd stop in the bars before going home. She'd have time but would have to work fast with the city ordinance that disallowed street people to panhandle... police often waiting in the wings. There were a good 20 or 30 bars in the business sector. She only needed a little, she thought. She approached quickly, boldly, first to the kind-faced ones, but later, indiscriminant, she confronted everyone she encountered. Laying out her hands she said, "Please can I have some money? I'm trying to get home." Same lines. Sincerely delivered. Mostly she received nothing, but some gave, and some more than others, and that's all she'd need, she thought, just some. At the end of two hours she had $83 and change. She needed more. She saw a woman dressed all in gold, walking with two friends, laughing, smiling. Sadie approached and said "Please," and the woman barely looked at her and gave her a $100 bill and walked on.
Sadie stared at the bill in her hand, then at the woman advancing up the sidewalk. Already a half a block away the woman walked nonchalant and free, as if nothing had passed between them. "Thank you," Sadie whispered, and she turned and walked south and west again.
Among the superstructures that towered over her Sadie tramped down toward the Sound, the last light of day awash in the street, a huge cold light that turned buildings and cars and people pink, as if everyone blushed, she thought... as if everyone was ashamed, and everyone beautiful. She entered the Greyhound depot and took the night bus to Spokane on a weekday special for $40. When she arrived she walked from the depot down past the falls and along the river and over by the YMCA. She peered in the front window for a moment but kept moving and walked up again through Riverfront Park and out past the Opera House and on up to the Amtrak station. From the phone booth near the door she thought she might call Benjamin. She thought better of it. She paid $143 and boarded the Empire Builder at 10 am and rode 28 hours, arriving in Minneapolis aching and hungry, her cravings awake and ravenous like animals. She sat down near the drinking fountain in the station and wiped the sweat from her forehead and drank as much water as she could. She filled her stomach. She knew she couldn't arrive drunk.
She walked most of the day, panhandled some, and took the last stretch by cab.
Her mother taught accounting at the University of Minnesota, and most of what Sadie remembered of childhood with her was austere and severe but when Sadie knocked on the door and her mother answered, her mother's face broke and she put her arms on Sadie's neck and wept. Sadie stood blank as her mother held her, and said nothing as her mother kissed her face. "Are you okay!?" her mother said, holding her, speaking into her eyes. "I've missed you. I thought you were dead." Sadie stared at her.
"You're alive!" she said, kissing Sadie's forehead. "I've missed you so much, Sadie. I love you."
Sadie didn't respond and her mother led her to the kitchen and prepared tea for her and wrapped her in a blanket and sat next to her and held her hand. She made a grilled cheese sandwich for her, and sliced some apples, and afterward she walked her to the bathroom and when Sadie was ready she led her to the guest bed and tucked her in and covered the bed with blankets. She slid in next to her daughter and stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
Her mother waited until Sadie started to get her feet under her again. They were at the kitchen table over tea. Her mother held the picture in her hand. It was a photograph Sadie managed to keep with her through everything.
"Your husband?" her mother asked, holding the photo, staring. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, arms folded, legs crossed, leaning against the hood of a Firebird. "Handsome," she said. "Very handsome.
"Was he good to you?" she asked.
"Yes," Sadie said. She looked at her mother. "He meant something to me. I think I meant something to him." Sadie went quiet. They watched each other. Her mother wondered of people, and love. She reached and ran her fingers through Sadie's hair.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & ays into days. A year, two years, more. Benjamin hadn't heard a thing.
At night in the subtle glow from the dash lights, driving alone in a small cluster of cars, he thought of Sadie. She'd been too neat, too tidy, he thought, and him overly dirty, unkempt, careless. She was gone a very long time now. He still loved her. They'd lasted for a while, but even at the end of it, sober as he wanted to be, they'd been poison to each other. He had gotten so rigid, and he couldn't stand her running to the bars. He thought of his own eyes on alcohol, subsumed in small houses of flesh and bone, needy, his head slack-mouthed and slate-faced, eyeing Sadie with menace or loathing, haughtiness, horror, or hate -- and now on the other side of the divide his only hope despite how he'd been back then was to be given a chance to be different. He'd be considerate, quick to listen. If he could find her again he'd do well by her this time. The children they didn't have would be born and sleep soundly and wake fearless in the world.
He'd never find her again. He knew it.
Driving, he checked himself. What did he know, really? I don't know anything, he thought, about anyone. Even knowing himself seemed absurd, especially when it came to love. He'd just keep driving to AA like he had for some time, good meeting in the conference room of an old hotel on Sunset Hill, precise regimen, daily.
He'd been training his mind to quit doubting, quit tempting darkness. He thought himself unworthy but if he tried he could reach past his self-loathing, find a way to hold her and himself in a good light, perhaps the whole world in a good light. His sponsor had him practicing most nights on the drive home. Forget about her, they all said, everyone in the group, even his sponsor. But he found this impossible. At least, if he could, he'd like to make amends. They called him obsessed, and crazy. He was healthy now. Good job. No drugs. No booze. Still, she unraveled him.
Often, as he drove, his hands felt wet as rain and he imagined himself as a young boy entering the village of an enemy. As if in a dream, he saw his mother standing before him gripped about the neck by a large warrior and forced to watch the enemy women approach her. They will be brutal to her, he thought. They will beat her. Then a name would come to him, it was her name, or a name given to her, Little Bird, and he couldn't remember how she received this name, but it was hers, and as soon as he remembered the name the dream changed and the women came and combed her hair with their fingers and brought her gifts, food and beaded work, and clothing.
When he thought right his hands didn't sweat. He knew then he'd gotten past the fear because his mind opened up and his face felt more together, not so loose. Driving, he'd picture himself in the last evening of summer, modest home outside Lame Deer, something he and Sadie had found together. They'd be lying down in a large bed, him watching her sleep, her artistic body and fine lines: a real woman, and he a real man, and there in the waking dream he saw himself clearly. He walked alone in the fields of her loveliness and he beckoned her and she turned and her face did not grow weary and in her eyes was a promise and he saw that her look was a look of kindness and the touch of her hand was meant for him, and he felt his burdens fall away, and the weight of his failings become as nothing. Nehmehohtahts, he whispered in Cheyenne, I love you -- and in the warmth of their bed in the half-world between sleep and morning he reached to caress the elusive nature of her ways and into her presence she welcomed him, and the words from her lips came softly in the darkness...
I have loved you with an everlasting love, I have drawn you with loving-kindness.
At night in his bed he fell asleep, and he dreamed, and he hoped he wouldn't wake.
He woke in daylight to the sound of a phone ringing. Slight sound he hardly heard from the other room, and he rose and walked down the hall, seven years sober, seven single, and on the phone, quiet came Sadie's voice. We borrow dignity, Benjamin thought, or we borrow shame. She was calling from a phone booth on the corner of Division and Second. He made himself ready and wore his best shirt.
Why not? he thought.
They hadn't spoken since she left.
He didn't know where she'd gone. He wasn't bitter.
He drove to find her and they went together and sat in a booth at Frank's Diner near the river and she told him she'd moved back with her mother in Minnesota, said she'd been sober three years, seven months, seven days. Her work as a dental hygienist had
been consistent and good. She didn't contact him because she didn't trust herself.
"And if I said I'm with someone else?" he said.
"I'd be happy for you," she said. "And sad."
His voice failed. She stared at him.
"I'm not with someone else," he said.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Montana on the high steppe below the great mountains the birds called raptors fly long and far and with their translucent predatory eyes they see for miles. The backbone of the world... that's what the Blackfeet called it. Once he watched two golden eagles sweeping from the pinnacled heights, the great stone towers. The day was crisp, the sky free of clouds, the sun solitary and white at the zenith. Hunting whitetail he sat on his heels, his rifle slung across his back, glassing the edge of coulees and along the brush that lined the fields. He used the binoculars with focused precision, looking for the crowns of bucks laying down, hiding. But it was up high to his right, along the granite ridge of the nearest mountain, where he'd seen movement.
He looked and recognized the birds and set the glasses on them and saw distinctly their upward arc almost tandem far above the ridgeline. He followed them as they reached an impossibly high apex where they turned and drew near each other and with a quick strike locked talons and fell... the mystery, he thought... simple as that, the bright majesty of all things. They gripped one another as they whirled in awkward discontinuity, oblivious and cumbersome and powerful and elegant. He followed them all the way down and at last the ground came near and they broke and seemed suddenly to open themselves and catch the wind again and lift, wings cleaving the air, climbing steadily higher and higher so at last they opened wide and caught the warm thermals that sent them with great speed arcing above the mountain until finally the birds dipped for a moment, then rose on vigorous wingbeats all the way to the top of the sky where they met one another and held each other fiercely and started all over, falling and falling.
ABOUT THE FICTION CONTEST
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t takes time and commitment to write a 4,000-word short story. Perhaps that explains why the 18 entrants in this, The Inlander's 12th annual Short Fiction Contest, included at least two former winners, two former second-place finishers, and a 13-year-old girl who wrote a story about Bigfoot wandering the streets of Spokane. But after I had winnowed the entries down to four finalists and after our judge, Professor Vic Bobb of the Whitworth University English Department (working with blind submissions) had made his selections, it was clear that two stories stood out from the rest: Shann Ray's "How We Fall" and John Nelson's "Papa's Ghost." Ray's story is reprinted here; Nelson's is readable online at www.inlander.com. (The fact that the plot of "Papa's Ghost" turns on the results of The Inlander's fiction contest did not influence Professor Bobb, who is too busy teaching the contemporary fiction of eastern Europe to bother with reading a newspaper like this one.)
-- MICHAEL BOWEN
Shann Ray has lived on the Northern Cheyenne reservation as well as in Alaska, Germany, Canada and Los Angeles. Married with three daughters, he is now professor of Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University. He studied under Jonathan Johnson, Nance Van Winckel, John Keeble and Christopher Howell at Eastern Washington University, where he earned a dual MFA in poetry and fiction; he also has postgraduate degrees in psychology from Pepperdine and the University of Alberta. His work has appeared in Big Sky Journal, Best New Poets, McSweeney's, Northwest Review, Poetry International, StoryQuarterly and other venues. And he hoops as well as he writes: Three times, Shann has played on teams that have won the Men's Elite Division at Hoopfest. Visit www.shannray.com.
Born on the Colville Indian Reservation, artist Ric Gendron resides in Spokane, making art and music. Gendron began his professional career about 25 years ago. He has exhibited his artwork at the Santa Fe Indian Market, N.M.; Heard Museum, Phoenix; Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis; Purdue University Museum of Art, West Lafayette, Ind.; Chetwynd Stapylton Gallery, Portland; Sutton West Gallery, Missoula; the Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle; and at other museums throughout the country, especially in the Southwest. Locally, Gendron has shown at Whitworth University, Spokane City Hall, Spokane Art School and SFCC; he is represented by Tinman Artworks. He lives for his children and grandchildren.
John Nelson won last year's Short Fiction Contest with his story "Today We Were Wolves." He still says that while he's not a starving artist, he "could be labeled a 'two-mortgage writer' -- one who works 40 hours a week at his bill-paying job, then grasps the pen at lunch and after hours." An EWU graduate with a bachelor's degree in business, he works for Genuine Parts. His self-published first novel, Whidbey, will be available this spring, and he's working on his second.
As credentials for judging a short story contest, Vic Bobb presents the following: His first published story appeared in True Romance in 1979. He once sold, on the same day, material to Fundamentalist Journal and National Lampoon. He grew up in Pullman, went to WSU, and -- except for periods of exile as a grad student in Oregon and an English prof in Illinois -- hasn't missed a Cougar home football game since 1956. He has taught fiction writing at Whitworth for 22 years, and -- as an example of just how voracious his reading is -- his vote for "most versatile and delightful writer of the past half-century" is Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal.
First Place: "How We Fall"
"How We Fall" is the work of an assured crafter of narrative who isn't afraid to ask a short story to cover a good deal of time and geography. The rhythms of the prose are varied, well-controlled and engaging; the reader participates through them in the consciousnesses of the characters and in the environments of Spokane, Seattle, Minneapolis and southeastern Montana.
The image and metaphor of the final paragraph holds the whole story together, illuminates the experiences of Ben and Sadie, and comes to us in very fine prose. The author stands out in part for being capable of rendering dreary episodes in lyrical language; this reader would be happy to read other stories by the creator of "How We Fall."
Second Place: "Papa's Ghost"
Clever, playful and ingenious in the plot spring that drives this tale of the blocked writer, "Papa's Ghost" is a story that manages to turn preparation-for-suicide into an entertaining and non-grim experience for the reader. The story's skillful unrolling of the Inlander-themed plot offers amusing surprises and makes its way to its involuted ending in ways that are likely to satisfy even grumpy readers. The story would suffer badly from being summarized; that fact is a tribute to its success as narrative. (The writer's sense for Papa's artistic philosophy and way of expressing it seems to be to be right on target.) This is a story likely to leave one feeling that the time reading it was well spent.