Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
New York Live Arts presents
The winter of 1968 was the last winter it snowed deeper than three feet and the branches of birch, aspen, and jack pine snapped under the weight. The ditches leveled off at the top with blowing snow, connecting with the fields that stretched from central Minnesota, all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies stared across the barren plains to Minnesota and judged the nakedness that lay out for all to see.
During the summer months the leaves and grass could hide what shouldn’t be seen. When the heat came in those months the surface growth, whether pine or brush, grass or weeds, could cover the deficiencies of right, the diminishing borders, even the history. This could not be done when it snowed and the living growth had retreated or died. But just the same, in November the weather delivered so much that was unexpected, when everyone had assumed that they had seen it all before. The flakes and jumble of snow that fell so hard and so thick was out of place in November. The weather had been too cold for the snow and for the winds that came from the south, blowing off Lake Michigan and across Wisconsin. When it warmed to zero and the red alcohol thermometers began to work again, the winds swept over the lakes and rivers, blending them with the fields. The November winds blew the snow from the ground, shook it from its frozen place on the bare branches of trees, and broke it from the crested drifts along the sides of barns and ditches. It was swept from the fields that used to yield wheat second only to the Nile valley, but that had long before given up their last bit of topsoil to spring oats and winter wheat. The fields that used to yield corn, beets, soybean, and sunflower to farmers who came from Germany, Sweden, and Norway were choked with quackgrass. The descendants of the Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians now worked as automechanics, store owners, policemen, telephone repairmen, truckers, pipeline supervisors, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, welders, sheet-metal workers, and as agents of history. As the snow lifted and swirled through the air they remembered for their fathers and mothers, and remembered to their children who sat at the kitchen table in Levis, their blond hair under greasy baseball caps. The gusts reached in and shook the window panes from where they sat in their sashes as the sons and daughters of immigrants remembered the day the iron range had produced more iron ore and taconite than any other mine in the United States. They remembered before iron was discovered when the great pine logs were loaded on trains and shipped north to Winnipeg and south to Minneapolis. They remembered before the railroads when the logs were hauled by steamship up the Red River and down the Mississippi, and before that when they were sledged out in the winter on sleds pulled by horses, and in the summer on carts pulled by oxen.
They put more wood in their stoves, and staggered a bit as their arthritis kicked in, or the continual pinch of a sciatic nerve jerked along the run of a back. Lowering themselves into squeaky aluminum chairs they remembered before the logging when their ancestors first arrived by boat and quarreled with the French for the land of Minnesota. They remembered the French trappers who, escaping from a life of crime, played out their fantasies trading with the Indians.
Then they remembered their great-great-grandparents who left the famines of Europe. They remembered that their ancestors brought with them only a few plates that had been decorated with painted rose petals and laurels during the long Scandinavian winters in which the sun would never set, in which it would hover at the edge of the horizon taunting them with its simultaneous presence and distance. They remembered those plates standing next to the ones painted by their great-grandparents during the long, dark and bone-cracking cold Minnesota winters. They even remembered why there were no others. Why, where there should have been similarly decorated plates painted by their parents, even themselves, there were only empty spaces. There were only empty spaces, gaping holes where there should have been some porcelain history because they and their parents had been too busy with the farm—with the construction of the silo, with fixing the far wall of the barn that had begun to lean—to spend time weaving paint onto something which was used to eat off. And now, now they did not know how to create the arc of vines and leaf along porcelain rims.
They remembered it all to their children in dirty jeans, clean blond hair, and greasy baseball caps who still lived at home. Their children lived at home and kept odd hours because they worked in town as grocery baggers, pizza delivery boys, gas pump attendants, and night janitors. They remembered to their daughters whose skin was clean and whose hair was done with a large wave of bangs, supported by patience and hair spray. They worked as hairstylists, waitresses, and girlfriends who were too alone to say no to their over-anxious boyfriends, and too Lutheran to say yes above a whisper in the back seat of a car.
They remembered their past and constructed the present with mortgages and loans to pay the property taxes on their fathers’ land in whose fields and pastures stood rusted skeletons of farm machinery too broken down with age to be sold at the county auction. They told these stories in earnest at kitchen tables over potbellies and Pabst Blue Ribbon, sometimes coffee, to their children who had long ago quit listening.
They remembered to children who took loans they could never pay back on pickup trucks. These were children who grew up under the floodlights that attracted moths, june bugs, and fishflies at the Dairy Queen just off the main streets of small towns with names like Dent, Durkel, Deadwood, Badger, Armistice, and Hope. And who in the winter went to the Thursday night hockey games played by their teams who were always hopelessly out-matched by their rivals from the rich suburbs of Minneapolis: Edina, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, and Rosedale.
But there were places where their memory could not go. When this happened they smoothed over the gaps and jumps of what life was like before they got there. They couldn’t remember what the land looked like before it was logged the very first time, they couldn’t let themselves guess. These memories had no place next to the kitchen table and they couldn’t be spoken over a bowl of peeled potatoes still steaming into the damp kitchen light. Conversations about before their arrival, about who had lived there before were never given audience when fathers and sons squinted together under the belly of the tractor tightening the crank shaft or securing a cowling with bailing wire so the dirt that was knifed up wouldn’t cake in the gears.
When they padded the bottom of the pickup truck with hay and then placed the crated eggs on top so they wouldn’t break down the rutted roads, the talk and remembering was always about last year’s hay, or this batch of eggs. During the slow ride to town the talk shifted in between the here and now and the not so here and now; about the hen that strutted the yard in front of the barn protecting what she thought were her eggs but were only a few pebbles or rocks that had been loosened from the packed dirt by boots or the hooves of the cows. It didn’t go much further than before the crossing over, because their memory wasn’t made for that, couldn’t contain who had lived and walked before, and who were beginning to emerge again, to speak again.
So they stitched and sewed, smoothing over the spaces that to them appeared as silences though that was a sentiment far from the truth. What they could remember was how the boats pitched and sloughed through the waves and how it was dark down in the third-class compartments that were wet and smelled of urine and mildew. If it had been a freight then the memories were of whatever the boat had held before them. Sometimes it was coal, and the passengers scrubbed for weeks to get rid of the smudges that had worked under their skin from chaffing against the metal walls. Some of the dirt never went away. Other times the cargo had been potatoes or beets and the conversation was less rueful about the washing because the great-great-grandparents were never able to enjoy those foods again. The smell never washed out and there had been too many rats. The cattle freight spoke of rotting hay and the sloshing of urine and shit, because the crew knew that they would still have boarders even if it was rotten and dark.
These conversations could be accommodated because when the mother peeled potatoes, they were reminded because the potatoes were right there, safely being disassembled in the family’s own kitchen. They were reminded of these modern stories when the father hosed out the cattle trailer because it was new and because there was a loan that would always be newer than the trailer. The father would remember only as far back as the crossing because if he remembered further back he would be forced to go back even before the tractor and its use. His son was there, hosing, wishing he wasn’t. The father’s conversation found no purchase with his son, and as soon as the last of the manure left the trailer the boy left to shoot mourning doves with his BB gun or to go with his friends to the bridge where they dared each other to jump off into the river.
There were memories longer and deeper than these that touched the land, especially when the snow got deep or the drought brought not only heat but also wind. The topsoil was lifted off and it looked so easy, it left so readily while the farmer just watched it go into the wind. When he looked wind-ward he saw that the horizon was hazy and the sun was blood-red because of all the dirt in the sky that had been stolen by the winds from everyone’s fields. When this happened the farmer thought back and counted how many times this had happened to him, or his uncle, or his father. He kept searching for a time when the soil stayed neat and the rows were crusty and straight, glistening with just the right mixture of loam, sand, and clay so that there was neither too much water nor too little and it stayed top-side neither too briefly nor too long. The farmer would have to think back behind the farms to the logging days but then there the barges broke or the band on the saw had melted from the heat. While out logging in the bush, there had been the times when the wind blew from the wrong side just when the last wedge had been cut from the trunk. As the tree fell the other men couldn’t hear the sound of its fall, so the warnings didn’t help, the frantic waves and yells that were shouted from a distance did little good. They fell on the unlucky ones, splitting bone and lopping off arms. The blood spilled onto the floor of pine needles thicker than any of their memories and seeped through.
On a Thursday night of rememberings, forgettings, and hand jobs under blankets on the plastic seats at local hockey games, a car was driving north and west from Wisconsin. The car had no story to tell of sex that had been gotten after conquering the high school’s cutest cheerleader. It spoke of no nights out shining deer during the summer. It had never had children begging to ride on the hood, their sticky hands plastered with the remnants of Push-Ups or Mr. Freezes. It had never had teenagers spilling beer on the seats, worrying if their parents would smell it. It had never drag-raced other cars down the many straight side streets in Sheboygan.
The brown Impala had been first purchased by an old woman named Myrtle Jacobsen who never used it to go to far-away places. She used it to drive from home to the grocery store and back, or to the hospital for her weekly check-ups. She thought she was dying of cancer and she longed to go though the living agony of chemotherapy like Jack Lemmon did in his famous movie, but the doctors told her again and again that she didn’t have cancer and that she was in good health.
The woman named Myrtle who first owned the brown car lived like that for eight years until one day she dropped dead while feeding her cat. The car was sold by her son who flew all the way from Oakland to tie up the loose ends of her meager estate. It was an estate that consisted of a small house in Sheboygan filled with pictures, a doll collection of no value, and a brown Chevy Impala. He really had to get back to Oakland so he sold the house to a Century 21 Realtor and he sold the car to the first used-car dealer he saw on his drive back to the airport.
The used-car dealer, Bill Henderson, paid more than he should have for the car partly because the son from Oakland was greedy and partly because Mr. Henderson was thinking of the necklace this deal would buy for the nineteen-year-old with whom he was having an affair.
The nondescript car sat in Bill’s lot for a year, until an Indian man and his shaggy-headed boy came looking for a car. Normally Bill Henderson would have waved them away, or showed them the most expensive car so they were cowed and wouldn’t waste his time, or he would have feigned activity of great import. However, his mind was on other things, on secrets of his own, so he did not see the Indian until it was too late to assemble his defense, and then he saw that the Indian in fact had money in his pocket. The Indian had enough money because he sold Rubbermaid household products door to door. It was a job that usually didn’t pay so well, but the Indian had the knack for finding women who really wanted nothing more than a spotlessly clean floor. They wanted a clean floor and brooms with straight straws because their husbands were having affairs and there was nothing they could do about it. They couldn’t leave their husbands because they couldn’t market their skills as housewives. Their once-proud breasts and firm thighs—Scandinavian through and through—sagged, and their blue eyes were clouded from advancing age. They wanted to spite their husbands with toilet bowls that sparkled a dewy white, like ivory. They wanted to caress the linoleum with firm sponge mops and smooth the counters with unfrayed dishtowels, as they imagined their husbands caressing and touching younger women with firm breasts that their husbands oohed over and likened to chamois or silk, neither of which they had ever seen. The wives who hated their own wrinkles and stretch marks somehow loved their husbands. Their love was coupled with spite, so they wanted to scour frying pans thick with crusted grease, just as their husbands devoured the inner thighs of other women so white and smooth that they spent their money just to get to the tight, wet, forgiving sex, flesh that they had purchased with their treats of movies, rings, and flowers.
It was because of this that the Indian and his small boy had enough money to buy the brown Impala. They didn’t have to pay as much as they might have, considering the age of the car and the race of the used-car dealer. But Bill Henderson’s mind wasn’t on the price of the car. He had found out that his wife was having an affair too, with the father of the 19-year-old girl he was fucking in the back seats of all the cars he owned. The brown Impala that had stood at the end of the lot was the sole exception. Surprisingly, given its obscure location under the branches of a leaning oak tree and its expansive back seat, they had never used its seats for anything. Bill used subcompacts and compacts, working his way across the lot, but he had never reached the Impala. Bill Henderson got a kick out of fucking in cars during the AM and test driving them with prospective buyers during the PM, but the Impala was a decidedly unappealing car. So the Indian with his three-year-old boy bought the car with very little interesting history, got in, inserted the key, turned the motor over, and pulled out and away.
Once out of the lot, they didn’t go back to an apartment to gather belongings. They didn’t stop at a Perkins or a Country Kitchen to have a nice waffle breakfast. They didn’t drop by anyone’s house to say goodbye over three or four cups of good coffee with lots of condensed milk and sugar. The Indian got behind the wheel and his little boy sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window as the low buildings and cement sidewalks ended and the fields began.
At first the car was cold, but the heater was good so the car became warm and frost on the windows started to disappear. The little boy, impatient for his view, scraped off a patch of frost from his window and stuck his fingers and the ice shavings in his mouth. The fields rolled on and then stopped every few miles when the maple and oak forests closed in on the sides of the highway. These soon gave way to pine and rolling hills as the brown Impala neared Lake Superior and turned west, passing Black River Falls and Tomah, where the old Indian boarding school had been. The man drove past it and he never knew of its history or even its existence, curtained as it was from the road by sloping ditches and windbreaks of large blue spruce.
The man and the boy stopped in Superior, Wisconsin, where they ate in a small diner. There were only a few people eating; it was after dinner hours and there was a single waitress serving. She carried a frown, her mind on how to avoid the glances of the short-order cook who had a missing tooth, half a growth of beard, and nice wrinkled eyes. Anyone else might have liked those eyes, but she couldn’t appreciate them. They were too soft, perhaps they could see too much. She wanted a man with hard eyes. A man with steel blue eyes. Outside the temperature began to drop and snow started down in lazy circles, lightly covering the dirty gray sidewalks as the man sat with his boy and deliberated only a little. The man ordered for himself and his boy, while the child took no notice of what was going on around him. He never asked where they were going or even why. He preferred instead to play with the crayons left for him on the table. As the waitress took their order she was aware of her left hand, with its empty ring finger. She wondered as the man ordered the egg skillet and black coffee and as he ordered pancakes for his boy. She wondered why no one courted her. Why no one brought her home at 4:00 in the morning, begging her to let him come upstairs so she could smile demurely and swing her backside, just a little, as she ascended the stairs alone, in full confidence that they would make love in the future, and that it would be so good that she would cry. She wondered as the boy drew on his placemat why it was that no one got her flowers in the middle of the winter, the petals just a little brown from the frost. She would have liked that. Flowers in the winter. Flowers in the wintertime, even slightly browned ones would have spoken of devotion. Devotion from a steel-blue eyed man would have been priceless to her.
That was why after the Indians left she gave the short-order cook a smile that was only a little like defeat. It was like this that she went home with him and wondered at his softness and his hands that patched her and shored up her sides. No one would have thought that hands used to caressing frozen hamburger patties and hash browns could show her how low she hung and lift her up, just a little bit, enough to know that it was better than nothing. It made her cry, but just a little bit.
It was like this that the Indian and his boy crossed into Minnesota, leaving nothing behind. The apartment they had lived in was almost empty. There were no family heirlooms put in storage, or to wrap in newspaper and pack into boxes, carefully fit in a trunk. There was no furniture to sell at a rummage sale or to give to friends in a fit of charity. The apartment itself was situated above a Woolworth five-and-dime store. It used to be storage space for the Woolworth’s but the heyday of five-and-dimes was long over and the owner needed the rent money just to float his store. The apartment wasn’t decorated. The very idea of hanging pictures or putting up curtains seemed to defy what the apartment was about. It was about temporary things; a halfway place between jobs, wives, husbands, or the streets and jail. It was about peeling paint that no one wanted to fix and that some even liked that way. To the Indian it was about another home that wasn’t really, and another job that was. So he left with his son, taking with him the only memory that he dared let pin him down. His son wasn’t a link or an arrow that he’d fashioned. His son was a weight that would hold him under the water. His son would be the one who held his hand as the snow drifted into his mouth while he drowned. His son was the one who showed him exactly who he was, which served to remind him of what he was not.
In most men this would serve to instill a hatred of the boy. The violent aggressions that the boy’s living generated would have been taken out on him. To this Indian, though, it was different. He didn’t hate his son. This is not to say that he loved him either—the boy’s mother had been a woman who worked in the Woolworth’s below the apartment and they had fucked exactly five times before they lost interest. Nine months later she dropped the baby boy off at the apartment and left without a word. The man could see her through the window as she got into a light blue pickup truck, a truck the color of leaving.
He couldn’t hate the boy, just as he couldn’t hate the apartment because it was just a temporary stage, between lives. The boy, too, was just a place devoid of pictures and curtains. The man had never met his own father, had never been told of the funny things his father had done when he was a young man. He had never been hit by his father or held on his lap. He couldn’t hate his father either.
In this absence of feeling he drove west through the snow that now was driving down in gusts and blanketing the roads, the ditches, and the fields. He bent his head close to the windshield and tried to find the yellow lines in the middle of the road. The map said that the highway would go straight through the middle of the reservation. He had never been there, the reservation his father was from. His mother admitted she wasn’t exactly sure who his father was, but she had narrowed it down to two men. They were identical twins, she had said. She had had sex with both of them the same night in the same car. What she didn’t tell her son was that once she had passed out, the twins had stolen the car and she had never seen them again. She felt that it really didn’t matter. She never exhibited any need or desire to go find them, those two opposites; one quiet, one full of stories and jokes. Regardless of their differences, she had said, they were both good in the sack. That had been the end of it for her. She also said that at the time they had been working in the steel mills in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where she met them at a bar. As he drove, he kept hold of these absences of memory, held them at a distance and pulled them close, it really didn’t matter which, because he had nothing to know. But he wondered: whether his father would have laughed and joked, whether he had enough confidence so that upon making a mistake he would simply laugh, or if he held his coffee cup in both hands or between a single finger and a thumb. Whether he whistled in the morning.
It was with rememberings like these that the Indian man and his boy drove westward. The brown Impala split the snow and it swirled even thicker around the car and across the road. The boy was asleep on the seat, wrapped in an old quilt that the father had purchased at a rummage sale. No kind grandmother had sewn it for the boy out of love or loneliness. None of his aunts, sitting around smoking Benson & Hedges menthols, drinking coffee, had sewn it for his birthday. It was a discard thrown away at a rummage sale after all the children had grown and gone to college on the east coast. It was a rag with all of the memories laundered out.
The car slowed to 20 miles an hour and crawled past the sign announcing the reservation boundary without even a pause or a sign of recognition. The sign, like any state line, marked no change at all, marked changes that couldn’t be seen with the eye. So the sign went unnoticed by the Indian and his boy just as they went unnoticed by the sign and the pines that grew close to the road. They didn’t notice the snow getting deeper and deeper, trapping the car. The Impala carried a cache of non-memories in a place where every tree, ditch, gully, river, lake, house, field, and person was remembered.
The car hit some ice the grader had missed and was swept smoothly into the ditch. It slid while the father wondered at the smoothness of the ride and his inability to steer. It hit a power box. The boy stayed on the seat but the man hit his head against the steering wheel. He slipped sideways and under the steering wheel and lay bunched down by the gas pedal and the break, knocked out cold.
It went unnoticed like this: a brown Chevy Impala sat in the ditch with a sleeping boy and an unconscious father. The snow kept on getting deeper, piling around the car and the temperature dropped lower and lower. There was no sound but the sound of the wind prying at the windows and door handles, creeping under the hood and through the floor. Even that was muted by the glass and metal surrounding them. It was late and most people nursed cups of coffee or tea made with a generous amount of sugar in the comfort of their own homes. Most people sat in their kitchens and told stories about the last time it had snowed so much and so hard, which was close to 20 years ago this coming April. The father managed to rouse himself. He crawled out from the nest on the floor and the first thing he noticed was that the window on the passenger’s side had been smashed in, something he didn’t remember from before. The second thing he noticed was that the bundle of quilt and little boy that were his, were gone. The seat next to him was bare and the back seat, too, was empty. His eyes searched the ditch and along the road because he had heard of people being thrown from cars when they crashed. He found nothing but snow and ice. He looked for tracks leading away from the car, and they were there: muffled dents into the blowing snow.
The man knew that this was the end. It was the end of a long string of apartments where the little boy slept on the couch, or under the kitchen table. This was the end of more than four years of non-memories and second-hand clothes. This end was also the beginning of more than Donovan could ever have imagined. When the headlights of a westbound truck came into view, the man opened his door, pushed the snow out of the way, and staggered onto the highway. The truck slowed and the Indian man got in. The truck started up again and traveled west toward Grand Forks. In its turn it would travel through many small towns and larger cities whose names were too numerous and full of people alive and warm to be said out loud.
David Treuer is from the Leech Lack Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota. He graduated from Princeton University in 1992. little, published in October by Graywolf Press, is his first novel.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby