A/N: I'd love any input at all!
We are proud of our indigenous populations. The Cayuse, Klamath, Chetco, Umpqua, Ahantchuyuk—all belonging to diverse linguistic stocks and defined by the sediment poetry of a salmon's cycle. We are proud of their names on our valleys, waterfalls, local banks. They are the last, boozed senators of the frontier, of horses without saddles, of ranch trucks and redwood protectorates. They once aimed obsidian through buttoned cavalries; hoisted scalps on spears, smeared compounds of mud and resin on their cheekbones. We likewise hoist their names on the flags of our county seats, public libraries, having assimilated the yearly corn rituals of Modocs, celebrating the rustwater Wasco reservations, naming our sweetest, most cooked-with onions after northeastern tribes. There is great, reverent nobility here. There is an Indian population of .2%. We uphold visions of traded blankets, hawk-feathers clinging to twice-washed dreads, the famine-angled faces and laconic jawbones.
Wampum, pow-wow, totem.
Hart read a lot of Louis L'Amour. He has a bookshelf dedicated entirely to L'Amour's canon. Certain books are more worn than others, like routes of blood. They are all from the same publisher, and so there is uniformity in their spines, designs, size and cut. He likes the nickel cadence, the western faces. He sleeps on porches with a hat-brim over his eyes and keeps a tin of tobacco in his back pocket with an indian chief on its lid. He is very proud of the worn back-pocket denim around the tin. It means he is a man set in his ways, settled into good things, old habits, ballads accompanied by only one instrument. Reflected in virile tales told by men with French surnames, paisley patterns.
He told me at a young age that the worst thing a thinking man can do is read more than two books a season. A book is something to be considered, weighed, carried in the glove-compartment of the same pick-up truck a man uses to cross his own fields. Changes in the color of a landscape should be marked in memory by particular sentences, passages, fragments of dialogue. A man must be changed by the end of a book—if not by the book itself, at least by the daily hazards and lunchtime traumas of two or three months, and a variance in temperature. Hart believes in the pace of things. He has made me into an old man, with due consideration and gravity paid to a pending, side-mirror death. I started smoking Lucky Strikes when I was fourteen, and could bale thirty acres by evening, and often fell asleep rubbing the ridges of calloused skin on my palms, feeling the same pride a man nurtures in the denim imprint of a tobacco tin, in a name like Klamath.
Hart says that every man has some indian blood in him out here.
He tells me to carry it proudly, with respect to strange religions, memorized litanies, hand-carved wooden art.
The family unit falls into ruts of speech, expression, vacation. Fathers take their sons fishing, in hip-high boots, to cast lines thin and sunlit as the sill intelligence of ants. They have neat, slung baskets of bait, tackle, hooks, gutting implements. The whiskery flies are elaborate, wrought with trembling, masculine digits like marriage promises. Hart never took me fishing. He said it was a tired hunt, an institution of savage, arrhythmic nostalgia, without the same stealth and guile inherent to shooting a four-point buck with a heavy-duty plastic compound bow, while scented with bottled upwind urine, and fully camouflaged. He took his children instead to the Tillamook Cheese Factory, one-on-one, and afterward bought an ice cream cone. The cheese factory was the consolidation of an elder lifestyle, a place where cheeses and butters where not churned with the same hands which poured warm tub water down the long backs of children, felt fruit, hefted bibles. No dairy draped in breathing cloth, kept aloft from mice. No rounds of cheese aching with an appley firmness on a shelf. It was not a place where people wore calico and Thanksgiving was the showmanship of hard-work, tabled labors, and you could crouch at the spot where each item originated, and not walk far to get there either. At the cheese factory, the people behind thick glass wore hair-nets, masks, jeans. There were vats and overhead piping. Hart showed his children the tidy destruction of a lifestyle. He told me about electric milking machines that jolted milk from great rows of udders. This dovetailed into a lecture on meat-packing, butchery, Upton Sinclair. He wears blue shirts with white stitching. The tobacco smells like mint.
His best friend is an old Indian, who keeps his hair long, like a summer away from home. His voice is cool and quiet, a handful of grain in a dark pantry. At the hood of a truck, they talk about politics from their day, compare lifestyles, kids. They die at similar rates. I am terrified each time I see insurance companies and grocery stores going up bearing the names of forgotten fishing tribes.
We play billiards on Tuesday nights at the pool hall. There are few high school-aged kids there. They are Hispanic and they wear their t-shirts the length of gowns, hats still with tags, blue bandanas. They are no good, and they know it, and they laugh when the ball skids wrong, white pockets, the flat expanse is scratched. I know how we look. An old man and his middle-aged son. Heavy and with clean, acute strokes, leaning under light that emphasizes the depth and fallow of our furrows. I want a goddamn pizza. The place reeks of it.
Hart says to me, “I'll break.”
We build fences, rabbit hutches, woodsheds, pantry shelves, armoires, bed-frames, dressers, piano benches, milking stools, writing desks, doghouses, cupboards, sawhorses. The shorn heat of wood, the musk wine of cedar smell. The constructions which occur between two men of differing age, irrigation, wars, comedians. Purposeful measurements with stubby wood pencils, extension cords, overridden knotholes. Hart continues to woodwork. I take him balsa at the clinic. He has a penknife which mewls through the soft, heartless white wood; carves horses, birds at rest—lightweight idols which make me wish for children who could treasure the technique of a grandfather, eventually become nostalgic for hand-made things which have no function. Hart would take them to the Tillamook Cheese Factory where they would appreciate cheese curds and the secondary destruction of intangibles which bedrock a man's pride. Their names would have been chosen from a bible, from an obscure region of begets. They would be ten and twelve. I would not take them to see Hart. I would tell them the story of the time he got in a fist-fight with John Gladney, who got in the newspaper a couple years later for blowing up a post office. Hart's memory would flex. Ripple in their minds with the silt muscle of trout.
I take him on a drive along the Columbia River. It is Sunday, they let him wear his old clothes, jeans without the tin. There is an oxygen tank between his knees like a torpedo wrestled into submission. The river is green and wide, the windows are down, the dark is the summer velvet of blackberry eating. He rides his hand out the window, letting it kite on the wind. We'll stop and stay at a motel along the way and then finish the drive and spend tomorrow at Chinook Falls where there will be park benches, coal grills, drop-boxes for day-fees. We will drive along ridges, spend an hour watching the bright downward gallop, the day fifteen degrees cooler there, white nearby pines easing hugely like sick horses. We'll talk about Louis L'Amour's autobiography, Dennis Day, Robert Kennedy. How orchards are irrigated in the summer. Techniques of spacing corn. How strange it is to see a modern Indian using a goddamn cell phone.
He turns up the radio when the talk runs out. Our headlights devour highway moths. We skim by fill-up stations, low bars, truck stops, outposts. The night is good.