Thursday, June 30, 2016

Chapter 18

A crowd had been gathering all afternoon. That’s how it was in these hick towns; everyone and their mother’s uncle would come from at least a hundred mile radius to take in the Double Diamond Wild West Show. The spectators were already spilling out over the rickety bleachers and onto the fairground lawn, munching on sandwiches from picnic baskets and drinking juice from mason jars.

      It was actually a nice day for a picnic. It was windless scorcher and perfect for doing nothing but lying around in the grass. Growing up, Stella had been on a couple of so called “picnics”—excursions that were thinly veiled work trips to forage for fire wood or berries. The closest she’d ever been to going on a real outing was the one Saturday that she accompanied Sister Elizabeth to the Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg to pick up toiletries and new undergarments for the other nuns. Stella couldn’t remember now what the secret was she was meant to keep, but the trip had been to buy her silence over it.

      After they loaded the truck with supplies, Sister Elizabeth took her back into the mammoth building. They rode the elevator to the sixth floor. It was the first time Stella had been in such a contraption. She closed her eyes and imagined she was riding in a rocket ship, the queasiness in her stomach adding to the experience. When the doors opened they stepped out and into a whole new world— one where alien girls, some her own age, strutted through the lunch line on this strange planet called the Paddlewheel, with their big perfect hair and tight sweaters, heaping their plates with burgers, fountain drinks and bright coloured stuff that jiggled. They were accompanied by hip, hunky type young men, and they laughed and giggled between themselves at the foreigners—the darker skinned girl with the choppy bob and institutional uniform, and the nun in her habit.

      Sister Elizabeth was only a few years older than Stella, and her face broadcast her envy like a flashing neon sign, as though sitting there at that table stuffing her face with a burger and fries and sucking back a Coke was ever going to be enough— a pilgrimage to Shangri-La that only allowed her a view from a distant hill. Stella felt no sympathy for her. At least she wasn’t an Indian. At least she knew she was free to come back to Winnipeg another day to order some of that stuff that jiggled. And she most likely would.

      Pale, pimply boys, maybe a year or two older than her, fed long snaky electrical cords to musical instruments, which they twiddled and tweaked with great concentration, producing zums and tings here and there. Stella sipped slowly at her water, trying to make it last. She turned her attention from the boys to the window. She looked out over downtown Winnipeg and swore that the next time she made it back to this strange planet on top of the world, it would be different.

      Sister Elizabeth muttered something about the time and rose from her seat, but instead of heading toward the door, she made her way to the back wall where a large paddle-wheel was affixed to a simulated boat cabin. The nun sacrilegiously tossed a coin into the small pool beneath the spinning wheel. Stella was always amused by what hypocrites God people were. What was the point of offering alms to a fake restaurant display? Wishes, thought Stella, were for the things it wasn’t right to pray for, like owning a sweater that left no curve to the imagination. What was the point? Sister Elizabeth didn’t need wishes or prayers to join those girls in some flighty conversation about movie stars and boys. She could have picked her damn coin up, added it to the other money in her purse, gone downstairs, and bought herself one of those sweaters. Then come right back to spend the afternoon sipping Coke and making eyes at the pimply boys in the band. It was that easy.

      She had choices. Unlike Stella. Stella had never had a choice about anything. It certainly hadn’t been her choice to be born to a teenage mother on some starved out reservation. It hadn’t been her choice to be sired by an Irish hog farmer down the road, who liked the young Native girls and didn’t give them a choice about liking him back. She didn’t choose to be taken from a mother who loved her anyway, and put into a school where no one gave a shit about her, except some priest who also had a thing for the young Native girls. Because, if Stella had ever had a choice, she would have been born in Winnipeg to a nice middle class family and she’d be hanging out with the other kids right now, one of them, instead of an alien in this strange world she couldn’t guarantee she’d ever see again. Why when you had choices to be anything you wanted to be, would you choose to spend your life shaving the front part of your head, and then hiding in a habit?

      “We must be getting back,” Sister Elizabeth had said taking her by the arm. “We have been away too long, already.”

      As Stella stepped back into the elevator, preparing for descent, one of the pimply boys struck a chord on his guitar. It was sweet and reached out through the air to wrap itself around her like a hug. The door closed, cutting her off permanently from the music that followed.

Even with all of the windows open in the minuscule Arrow Stream, the heat was stifling. Stella slipped out of her thin gingham dress, and took a seat at the cramped fold out kitchen table. On it sat a silver train case. She flipped the lid up and stared at the mirror on the back. Twenty-two felt a helluva a lot more like forty-two. The road could age a woman like that. She hadn’t exactly been what you’d call fresh when Beauregard had taken her nearly eight years before, but she wasn’t anything like this. Then again, he could age a woman just as fast as life on the road.

      She smeared some dark cream on her face and rubbed it in. It was ironic. She’d sometimes, as a girl, fantasized that her lighter skin and mahogany tinted hair might be her ticket, and here she was covering up her sparsely dotted freckles (the only thing that the hog farmer ever gave her) to be the stereotype of an Indian princess. Not that the daytime Indian Princess shows were really of much interest to anyone. The afternoon crowds came for the cowboys. She drew a brush up the right side of her face, adding more definition to her cheekbone. She really only made an appearance during the day, as a sort of advertisement for the evening, men-only shows. The margins had shrunk abysmally after Daisy Johnson, the trick rider, ran off with Jack Colt, the trick roper. Now the Double Diamond was good for only one, maybe two shows per county, whereas they used to be able to stay on for as many as four or five back in the day. Everyone had to do their part to keep the show on the road. She drew a line up the other side of her face. If it hadn’t been for Beauregard, she’d have wound up either shaving the front part of her head, or left to wander back to a home where she knew not a soul, to wait until someone came to take her babies away. Dancing in the moonlight was a shit gig. The private “shows” even crappier. But life could have turned out worse.

      The buckskin dress was tight, and she had to shimmy it down her voluptuous body. The leather was heavy with bright coloured beads and it stuck to the sheen of sweat of her skin. She grasped a rolled cigarette between her slender fingers, lit it and inhaled a few puffs. She took a pair of fur trimmed moccasins from one of the closets and slipped her bare feet into them. This dancing was just for now. Beauregard had promised her. She just had to hang on until they made it out West, to California. He had some contacts in Hollywood that did something or other in Western movies. She was going to be on the silver screen, maybe even with John Wayne. Then she’d have silk stockings and a new dress for every day of the week.

      There was a bottle of corn mash, acquired from who knew where, sitting next to the train case. That was one thing Beauregard was good for. He always kept her supplied with that good ole liquid show time. Stella popped the cork and took a healthy gulp of it, swished it in her mouth and swallowed. “Let’s get this damn show over with, Pocahontas,” she said to the woman in the mirror. She took another sip then applied some deep red lipstick. She squished her lips together and wiped her teeth with an index finger.

      She stubbed out the cigarette and picked up an ornate war bonnet, plumed with multicolored feathers. It made her feel like an ass. Not that she could remember anything much from the old days, but she knew it wasn’t the sort of thing women wore, princesses or not. Princess. That was another thing. She’d known a lot of Indian girls in her life, but not a one of them was a princess. It was a white thing. You could be a shit farming inbred Irish pig fucker and be OK on a measure to other white folks. But to be an acceptable Indian, you always had to be some kind of a Chief, or a Medicine Man, or a Princess. She remembered her mother saying that.

      A breeze of nostalgia rose up out of nowhere and she caught the scent of its longing. She tried to recall something from the old days…more of her mother’s words, the way the women sang, the way they danced, but it all got messed up with the fake showbiz stuff so that she couldn’t really remember what was Hollywood, or Beau and his money making schemes, or the way it really had been. All she could catch the image of that might have be real were the limber feet of her mother touching the earth so lightly she looked to be floating through the tall grass. And who knew, maybe even that wasn’t real? The only memories of traditions she could swear by were the cold ceremonies of prayer in the name of the redemption of wicked souls, witnessed from a stiff position on a hard pew, or perched on aching knees.

      She pinned the feathers into place atop her head and helped herself to a few more swigs of hooch. Just a little more and she’d be ready.

      There was a knock at the trailer door. She huffed with annoyance, not being welcoming to preshow interruptions, and pushed the door open. In front of her stood a young cowboy, his hat in his hand.

      “Jake, what are you doing here?”

      “Beauregard is busy working up the crowd, so I thought it might be a good time to ask you something.”

      His look was earnest and genuine. He was two and a half years younger than her, but she couldn’t imagine an entire lifetime ever robbing half the amount of light in his smile that she’d already lost, in hers. “Well,” she said impatiently.

      He tugged her gently from the trailer. Keeping a hold of her hands, he dropped to a knee. “Stella, will you be my wife?” he said, bursting with anticipation. “I’m askin’ you to marry me.”

      “Is this a joke, Jake?” she laughed, pulling from him and reaching up into the trailer for the bottle.

      “No way,” he assured her as he fished a ring from his pocket. “This was my mother’s and I aim to put it on your hand.”

      “I’ve got to get going. I’m already running late. We can talk about it later.”

      “Is that a ‘yes’?”

      She really didn’t have time for this. She put the bottle back inside the Arrow Stream and closed the door. “It’s a maybe.”

      “I can’t live with a maybe. I need a ‘yes’.”

      She scrunched her eyes shut, trying to think. “Maybe. Yeah, Ok,” she said running off toward the crowd, leaving him still holding the ring in his hand.

      She’d have to set him straight later. 

      In the quiet of the night, while Beauregard was off getting drunk and gambling with the guys she’d just entertained, when Jake held her like she was something that could still be loved and even revered, she thought maybe she might be in love with him.

       But, she couldn’t keep patching her dress with embroidered flowers, either. Was a rodeo cowboy ever going to buy her new dresses? Or introduce her to his Hollywood connections?

No comments:

Post a Comment