Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene
Indian, is a writer and poet born in 1966. A contributor to various
publications such as the New York Quarterly, Beloit Poetry
Journal, Kenyon Review and ZYZZYVA, his already published
books of poetry, I Would Steal Horses (1992) and Old Shirts
& New Skins (1993), and his book of stories and poems, The
Business of Fancydancing (1992), are soon to be followed by another
book of poems, another story collection, and a novel on which he is
Too hot to sleep so I walked down to
the Third Avenue 7-11 for a creamsicle and the company of a graveyard
shift cashier. I know that game. I worked graveyard for a Seattle 7-11
and got robbed once too often. The last time the bastard locked me in
the cooler. He even took my wallet and basketball shoes.
The graveyard shift worker in the Third Avenue 7-11 looked like they
all they do. Acne scars and a bad haircut, work pants that showed off
his white socks, and those cheap black shoes that have no support. My
arches still ache from my year at the Seattle 7-11.
" Hello ", he asked when I walked into his store. " How
you doing ? "
I gave him a half-wave as I headed back to the freezer. He looked me
over so he could describe me to the police later. I knew the look. One
of my old girlfriends said I started to look at her that way, too. She
left me not long after that. No, I left her and dont blame her
for anything. Thats how it happened. When one person starts to
look at another like a criminal, then the love is over. Its logical.
" I dont trust you, "
she said to me. " You get too angry. "
She was white and I lived with her in Seattle. Some nights, she fought
so bad that I would just get in my car and drive all night, only stop
to fill up on gas. In fact, I worked the graveyard shift to spend as
much time away from her as possible. But I learned all about Seattle
that way, driving its back ways and dirty alleys.
Sometimes, though, I would forget where I was and get lost. Id
drive for hours, seraching for something familiar. Seems like Id
spent my whole life that way, looking for anything I recognized. Once,
I ended up in a nice residential neighborhood and somebody must have
been worried because the police showed up and pulled me over.
" What are you doing here? " the police officer asked me as
he looked over my license and registration.
" Im lost. "
" Well, where are you supposed to be? " he asked me and I
knew there were plenty of places I wanted to be, but none where I was
supposed to be.
" I got in a fight with my girlfriend, " I said. " I
was just driving around, blowing off steam, you know? "
" Well, you should be more careful where you drive, " the
officer said. " Youre making people nervous. You dont
fit the profile of the neighborhood. "
I wanted to tell him that I didnt really fit the profile of the
country but I knew it would just get me into trouble.
" Can I help you? " the 7-11
clerk asked me loudly, searching for some response that would reassure
him that I wasnt an armed robber. He knew this dark skin and long,
black hair of mine was dangerous. I had potential.
" Just getting a creamsicle, " I said after a long interval.
It was a sick twist to pull on the guy but it was late and I was bored.
I grabbed my creamsicle and walked back to the counter slowly, scanned
the aisles for effect. I wanted to whistle low and menacingly but I
never learned to whistle.
" Pretty hot out tonight? " he asked, that old rhetorical
weather bullshit question designed to put us both at ease.
" Hot enough to make you go crazy, " I said and smiled. He
swallowed hard like a white man does in those situations. I looked him
over. Same old green, red, and white 7-11 jacket and thick glasses.
But he wasnt ugly, just misplaced and marked by loneliness. If
he wasnt working there that night, hed be lonely at home
alone, flipping through channels and wishing he could afford HBO or
" Will this be all? " he asked me, in that company effort
to make me do some impulse shopping. Like adding a clause onto a treaty.
Well take Washington and Oregon and you get six pine trees and
brand-new Chrysler Cordoba. I knew how to make and break promises.
" No, " I said and paused. " Give me a Cherry Slushie,
" What size? " he asked, relieved.
" Large, " I said and he turned his back to me to make the
drink. He realized his mistake but it was too late. He stiffened, ready
for the gunshot or the blow behind the ear. When it didnt come,
he turned back to me.
" Im sorry, " he said. What size did you say?
" Small, " I said and changed the story.
" But I thought you said large. "
" If you knew I wanted a large, then why did you ask me again?
" I asked him and laughed. He looked at me, couldnt decide
if I was giving him serious shit or just goofing. There was something
about him I liked, even if it was three in the morning and he was white.
" Hey, " I said . " Forget the Slushie. What I want to
know is if you know all the words to the theme from The Brady Bunch?
He looked at me, confused at first, then laughed.
" Shit, " he said. " I was hoping you werent crazy.
You were scaring me. "
" Well, Im going to get crazy if you dont know the
He laughed loudly then, told me to take the creamsicle for free. He
was the graveyard shift manager and those little demonstrations of power
tickled him. All 75$ of it. I knew how much everything cost.
" Thanks, " I said to him and walked out he door; I took my
time walking home, let the heat of the night melt the creamsicle all
over my hand. At three in the morning I could act just as young as I
want to act. There was no one around to ask me to grow up.
In Seattle, I broke lamps. She and I
would argue and Id break a lamp, just pick it up and throw it
down. At first, shed buy replacement lamps, expensive and beautiful.
But after a while, shed buy lamps from Goodwill or garage sales.
Then, she just gave up the idea entirely and wed argue in the
" Youre just like your brother, " shed yell. "
Drunk all the time and stupid. "
" My brother dont drink that much. "
She and I never tried to hurt each other physically. I did love her,
after all, and she loved me. But those arguments were just as damaging
as a fist. Words can be like that, you know? Whenever I get into arguments
now, I remember her and I also remember Mohammed Ali. He knew the power
of his fists but more importantly, he knew the power of his words, too.
Even though he only had an IQ of 80 or so, Ali was a genius. And she
was a genius, too. She knew exactly what to say to cause me the most
But dont get me wrong. I walked through that relationship with
an executioners hood. Or more appropriately, with war paint and
sharp arrows. She was a kindergarten teacher and I continually insulted
her for that.
" Hey, school marm, " I asked. " Did your kids teach
you anything new today? "
And I always had crazy dreams. I always have had them but it seemed
they became nightmares more often in Seattle.
In one dream, she was a missionarys wife and I was a minor war
chief. We fell in love and tried to keep it secret. But the missionary
caught us fucking in the barn and shot me. As I lay dying, my tribe
learned of the shooting and attacked the whites all across the reservation.
I died and my soul drifted above the reservation.
Disembodied, I could see everything that was happening. Whites killing
Indians and Indians killing whites. At first, it was small, just my
tribe and the few whites who lived there. But, my dream grew, intensified.
Other tribes arrived on horseback to continue the slaughter of whites
and the United States Cavalry rode into battle.
The most vivid image of that dream stays with me. Three mounted soldiers
played polo with a dead Indian womans head. When I first dremad
it, I thought it was just a product of my anger and imagination. But
since then, Ive read similar accounts of that kind of evil in
the old West. Even more terrifying, though, is the fact that those kind
of brutal things are happening today in places like El Salvador.
All I know for sure, though, is that I woke from that dream in terror,
packed up all my possessions, and left Seattle in the middle of the
" I love you, " she said as I left her. " And dont
ever come back. "
I drove through the night, over the Cascades, down into the plains of
Central Washington, and back home to the Spokane Indian Reservation.
When I finished the creamsicle that the
7-11 clerk gave me, I held the wooden stick up into the air and shouted
out very loudly. A couple lights flashed on in windows on a police car
cruised by me a few minutes later. I waved to the men in blue and they
waved back acccidentally. When I got home it was still too hot to sleep
so I picked up a week-old newspaper from the floor and read.
There was another civil war, another terrorist bomb exploded, and one
more plane crashed and all aboard were presumed dead. The crime rate
was rising in every city with populations larger than 100,000 and a
farmer in Iowa shot his banker after foreclosure on his 1,000 acres.
A kid from Spokane won the local spelling bee by spelling out the word
When I got back to the reservation, my
family wasnt surprised to see me. Theyd been expecting me
back since the day I left for Seattle. Theres an old Indian poet
who said that Indians can reside in the city, but they can never live
there. Thats as close to truth as any of us can get.
Mostly, I watched television. For weeks, I flipped through channels,
searched for answers in the game shows and soap operas. My mother would
circle the want ads in red and hand the paper to me.
" What are you going to do with the rest of your life? " she
" Dont know, " I said and normally, for almost anu other
Indian in the country, that would have been a perfectly fine answer.
But I was special, a former college student, a smart kid. I was one
of those Indians who was supposed to make it, to rise above the rest
of the reservation like a fucking eagle or something. I was the new
kind of warrior.
For a few months, I didnt even look at hte want ads my mother
circled, just left the newspaper where she had set it down. After a
while, though, I gt tired of television and started to play basketball
again. Id been a good player in high school, nearly great, and
almost played at the college I attended for a couple years. But Id
been too out of shape from drinking and sadness to ever be good again.
Still, I liked the way the ball felt in my hands and the way my feet
felt inside my shoes.
At first, I just shot baskets all by myself. It was selfish and I also
wanted to learn the game again before I played against anybody else.
Since I had been good before and embarassed fellow tribal members, I
knew they would want to take revenge on me. Forget about the cowboys
versus Indians business. The most intense competition on any reservation
is Indians versus Indians.
But on the night I was ready to play for real, there was this white
guy at the gym, playing with all the Indians.
" Who is that? " I asked Jimmy Seyler.
" Hes the new BIA chiefs kid. "
" Can he play? "
" Oh, yeah. "
And he could play. He played Indian ball, fast and loose, better than
all the Indians there.
" How long hes been playing here? " I asked.
" Long enough. "
I stretched my muscles and everybody watched me. All these Indians watched
one of their old and dusty heroes. Even though I had played most of
my ball at the white high school I went to, I was still all Indian,
you know? I was Indian when it counted and this BIA kid needed to be
beaten by an Indian, any Indian.
I jumped into the game and played well for a little while. It felt good.
I hit a few shots, grabbed a rebound or two, played enough defense to
keep the other team honest. Then, that white kid took over the game.
He was too good. Later, hed play college ball back East and nearly
made the Knicks team a couple years back. But we didnt kow any
of that would happen. We just knew he was better that day and every
The next morning, I woke up tired and hungry, so I grabbed the want
ads, found a job I wanted, and drove to Spokane to get it. Ive
been working at the high school exchange program ever since, typing
and answering phones. Sometimes, I wonder if the people on the other
end of the line know that Im Indian and if their voices would
change if they did know.
One day, I picked up the phone and it was her, calling from Seattle.
" I got your number from your mom, " she said. " Im
glad youre working. "
" Yeah, nothing like a regular paycheck. "
" Are you drinking? "
" No, Ive been on the wagon for almost a year. "
" Good. "
The connection was good. I could hear her breathing in the spaces between
our words. How do you talk to the real person whose ghost has haunted
you? How do you telle the difference between the two?
" Listen, " I said. " Im sorry for everything.
" Me, too. "
" Whats going to happen to us? " I asked her and wished
I had the answer for myself.
" I dont know , " she said. " I want to change
the world. "
These days, living alone in Spokane, I wish I lived closer to the river,
to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump. I wish I could sleep. I put
down my paper or book and turn off all the lights, lay quietly in the
dark. It may take hours, even years, for me to sleep again. Theres
nothing surprising or disappointing in that.
I know how all my dreams end anyway.