Authors: Gary Paulsen
Sort of. Older friends were never that close, and besides, most of them drank far too much; they drank until they were mush-brained, drank until they spent all their time saying the same things over and over, and generally the things they said were of a great and lofty nature—as Janet thought of them—and were very boring.
For that reason Janet, after only the one year they’d lived in Tres Pinos, was emerging as a kind of loner, caught between a school that wasn’t right for her and her mother’s friends, who were not right either, and who were also too old and too locked into art.
Oh, art was all right with Janet. In fact she sculpted some in clay herself, on a small basis. But she wasn’t as devoted to it as her mother’s friends seemed to be, and that left her still more alone.
Not that she minded.
That’s how she thought of it—that fast and tight. She was a loner,
not that she minded
—it always came in that way when she thought of herself.
I like being alone, she thought—I’m alone but I don’t mind. Which of course wasn’t true at all, but rather than face the fact that she didn’t like being a
loner, that indeed she would have loved to have friends her own age and be part of the social structure of school—rather than admit she hated the way she was living, she lied to herself.
I’m alone but I don’t mind it, she thought; and she thought it so often every day since they’d moved to Tres Pinos in the mountains, where the people lived the old ways and didn’t like whites, she thought it so many times every single day that in the way of such things she came to believe it herself. And because she believed it, or thought she did, she began to favor being alone.
“What a strange girl,” Eloise Merkins, an older woman who wrote “precious” children’s books, told Janet’s mother. “Always going off by herself that way. Do you think that’s normal?”
“I don’t think it’s important,” Janet’s mother answered. She wore goggles when she worked on stone, to keep chips out of her eyes, and she raised them when she wanted to be sincere. She raised them now. “I don’t think it matters that she goes off alone. It’s just that time for her, the time when she changes from a girl to a woman. I used to like to be alone, and if you dig into your memory, you’ll probably find that you were the same way at that age.”
As a matter of fact Eloise had never been troubled by much, and had never wanted to be alone—spent most of her girlhood surrounded by chatty friends—but she wisely said nothing. Families had a way of
joining together, and it was not a place for an outsider to get involved.
And whatever else they were, Janet and her mother were a family. The divorce—Janet’s surgeon father had spent most of his time at work anyway and so had never been close to Janet—had brought them together with a bond that allowed no outside influence to injure either of them.
Once Janet had come into a room at a party while another artist was attacking her mother’s work. The attack had been overly personal and biting and had caused Janet’s mother to cry—though, to be honest, the wine at the party might have had a lot to do with the tears.
At any rate Janet, normally calm, peaceful, and serene, flew at the man like a young tigress and all but flattened him with a heavy glass bowl full of dip.
“You leave her alone,” she’d screamed, surprising even herself. “You leave her alone, or I’ll tear you apart!”
They were a family, Janet and her mother. And after the incident at the party nobody doubted it or challenged it.
And Janet continued to move alone through her world—alone except for the attention the boys paid her, which was flattering and obnoxious at the same time. They were so—so macho, hung up in all the stupid manhood stuff that went with being a Chicano, like the cars with moon hubcaps and muscles and
fighting and knives—ahh, yes, the knives. There was so much of that, and so much toughness, that Janet shied away from dates or even being with them in school, though there were several who showed off for her regularly and followed her and made the clicking sounds to attract her attention so that she would look and they could smile and turn away. It was all a stupid game as far as Janet was concerned, complicated and ridiculous. There was one guy, named Julio—pronounced “Hulio”—she was attracted to him because his eyes were dark and he stood tall. She liked him, but there was no way she could get with him because of the macho thing.
He had let it be known around school that he thought she was all right and that maybe he wanted to date her. But he couldn’t come right up and ask her because that would make him lose face, and she couldn’t go up and talk to him because that would ruin her reputation as far as the school and other kids were concerned, and if her reputation was ruined, Julio wouldn’t want to go out with her anymore anyway. Except for that other thing. And she wasn’t about to get involved that way, so everything hung in the middle.
Like the dream.
She moved alone through her life and told herself she didn’t mind, which was a lie she didn’t believe, and now and then, in the nights before the dream came and kept coming, now and then she looked at her life and wondered why she bothered.
She would lie on her back in bed with the moon coming into her bedroom and making the
—the poles that held the ceiling up—look like inverted dark canyons, and she would stare and stare and wonder why she bothered.
Not to live. That she had to do. But why she bothered to lie to herself and why she bothered to live the lie until she believed it. Because in the end it didn’t make any difference. Whether she lied or not didn’t matter in the same way her mother thought it didn’t matter if she went off alone.
Then came the dream. And with the dream came the fear that she couldn’t understand—deep and cutting cold fear that was so real it almost stopped her heart when she came awake after the dream.
And though it’s true that the dream stopped the wondering, the fear that left her shaking alone in the night, alone and soaked in perspiration, was a terrible thing to use to replace the wondering.
It was cold and mean and more than terrible, because it left her shaken and confused, rattled her mind until she couldn’t think, and there was nothing she knew about the dream, nothing she understood.
She didn’t know if she was afraid for the deer or afraid that the arrow frozen in time over the pond might miss the deer and deprive the Indian of his food, or if she was afraid
the Indian or afraid
She was just rattled and afraid.
And that was worse than the wondering. Worse by a mile. Worse than anything in the world.
Or at least that’s what she thought then, caught in the middle. Hung like the arrow.
Of course that was before she met the fifty-three-year-old Indian named Billy Honcho, who had been a governor of the pueblo and who drank wine until he saw things not the way they used to be but the way they should have been.
That was before she met Billy, who slept in the plaza in the afternoons so that the occasional tourists could take pictures of what they thought was a typical Indian but what was really just somebody drunk and sleeping it off in the sun of the plaza.
That was before Janet met Billy and learned of wars that never were but should have been fought by braves that never existed except in dreams; before she learned that all things beautiful are sometimes ugly and that many ugly things are just waiting for beauty to come to them.
That was before Janet met Billy Honcho and fell in love.
The first time Janet and Billy met, it was simple enough, so simple that Janet often wondered later if it all hadn’t been planned by a power she couldn’t understand—almost a movement of forces.
She’d gotten up one morning at dawn after a night of fitful sleeping, a night when the dream had come and awakened her, and the peace of the early morning, when she moved out of the coolness of the adobe house into the walled courtyard, was like a cool and soothing salve on her raw nerves.
For a time she just stood in the courtyard, surrounded by the morning and by the pieces of unfinished sculpture her mother was working on; it was midsummer, and the birds were singing through the damp morning feeling, and it was all so beautiful and fresh that it was almost too rich, like eating too much sweet pastry.
She decided to take a walk. It was about half a mile from her house to the plaza in the center of town, and
she set off with a long-gaited, easy stride that soon had her blood moving and muscles tingling.
All along the way there were small houses of adobe with almost ancient tilled fields around them—patchworks of green and yellow adobe. It was still too early for many people to be up, but a few roosters were cutting loose, and the sharp sound bounced down the road in front of her as though one rooster were warning the next of her coming.
In town the plaza was covered with flagstone, cut in odd shapes, and the whole square was surrounded by high cottonwoods that spread so wide they nearly met at the middle, making the plaza into almost a room, a high green room. In the center of the plaza a low building lay, actually little more than a roof at ground level, with the rest of the building buried.
This was the jail, and nobody in town knew why the original founders—over four hundred years in the past—had decided to bury the jail in the middle of the plaza. They just had, and the jail had always been there, a low flat roof, with the cells and sergeant’s desk underground at the end of a slanted stairway, where it was rumored many hippies were beaten and many summer drunks who were nonlocal were roughly handled for their money. None of it had ever been proved, but the rumors persisted, and once Janet had seen a young man with long hair come out of the jail with his face all bruised, so she supposed there was some truth to it all.
But this morning when she came to the plaza she wasn’t thinking of the jail so much as of the morning. Moving into the shade of the cottonwoods on the cool stone of the plaza, she sat on a concrete bench near the water fountain that was turned on in the summer and closed her eyes and let her thoughts come clean from the night and the dream, and when she opened her eyes a moment later, an old Indian was sitting next to her on the bench.
At first, for the smallest part of a second she couldn’t believe he was sitting there. Not really. And she blinked once.
Then her nose caught him; the stale smell of old and tired and used wine, and she opened her eyes again. He was real.
“Oh.” She said it softly, the same
that came in the dream, though she didn’t know it then—a tiny little acknowledgment. “Hello.”
But he said nothing, looked straight ahead out across the plaza, as if she weren’t there. He looked indescribably old and filthy, with a blanket wrapped around his head and upper body that had once been flannel but that now looked like greased canvas. The wrinkles in his face were caked with dirt, as were his fingernails, and his eyes had the deep red-yellow that comes from acute alcoholism, and as she studied him out of the corner of her eye, he started to lean-fall over toward her.
She stood suddenly, started to leave, half in fear and half in revulsion.
“My name is Billy.” His voice was cracked and brittle, like gravel in dry leaves. “Billy Honcho. I was in jail. You got any money?”
She stopped, turned. He wasn’t looking at her, was still staring straight ahead, but there was something new about him—some feeling she couldn’t understand—that made her pause. Normally she would just have moved on, back into the soft morning, away from this old and drunk Indian.
“I said, ‘You got any money?’ ” He repeated the question, still looking straight ahead. “I just got out of jail, and I need some wine.”
“No …” She answered hesitantly. She was still trying to figure out the newness of him, the feeling. “No money—I’m just out for a walk. I didn’t bring any money.”
“You have some at home?”
It’s his shoulders, Janet thought; it’s the angle of his shoulders. It’s like the shoulders are fighting the rest of the body and won’t admit that he’s asking me for money; the shoulders are straight and level and strong. Very strong.