Issue #19, 2002
Red, White and Silver
Red, White and Silver
Three Indian girls sit in the corner of the classroom. Their silver lips burn against their brown skin like the white-hot tips of soldering guns. A boy who dropped out of this school last year has been murdered. His body was found by the side of Sinks Canyon Road about a mile from where the Popo Agie River carries runoff from the Wind River Mountains into a hole below the dolomite cliffs. He was white. The accused are Indian. Now the silver metallic lipstick of the Indian girls warns, “Lay off us.”
I am the substitute teacher dressed in the remnants of my former life: black-polka-dot-on-magenta silk blouse, black pleated skirt nearly to my ankles, and leather pumps. The corporate model. My philosophy of substitute teaching: Be nice to the students and they will respond. I pronounce each name carefully. My magenta smile matches my tailored blouse.
“Here’s what we’ll do today: Read Chapter 2, ‘From Opinion to Thesis,’ in ‘The Lively Art of Writing,’ then go to the computer lab so you can begin working on your essays.” I sit at the teacher’s desk to read the assignment with them. The walls of the room are blank, and the windows are covered by gray springwinter cloud. I crave some note of color or creativity. The disarray of the classroom desks bewilders me. I’ll straighten them before fourth period. We read, The thesis of your essay is your opinion boiled down to one arguable statement. The author has chosen the topic of silverware to illustrate the essay-writing process.
At home my silver lies in a wooden chest in a cardboard box on a shelf. I brought it with me to this, my new home. We read, Undoubtedly you can summon up stray observations you have made and bits of information you have heard. Here, we live in a county larger than New Hampshire or Massachusetts. It includes the Wind River Indian Reservation, the Shoshone National Forest, BLM land out in the Red Desert, and a hundred miles of the Oregon Trail. Cattle outnumber people. On the road, pickup trucks outnumber cars. The nearest mall is a three-hour drive across antelope range. The nearest big city is in another state half a day away, assuming good weather. The teen pregnancy rate, the highest in Wyoming, is equal to that of Los Angeles County. What these bits and pieces are depends upon your own experience, of course. Until I moved West, I had never taught in a high school. Never walked in an Indian cemetery. Never watched a powwow.
That first time off the highway four years ago, thorny boughs, serrated leaves and rose hips scraped against the enamel finish of my small city car. On the soft dirt road, the screeching of wild roses excited me in a way that radio at freeway speed never could. My wheels emerged from the thicket onto higher ground. From a fence post shaded by the green of cottonwoods, two magpies flew across the trail. I had never seen birds with such tails weighing back toward earth. They could have been a pair of phoenixes, black with flashes of white, and this some legendary land preserved in autumn. I left my car, its silver trim reflecting back at me, and walked up the hill to the Indian cemetery.
The sons and daughters of the Shoshone nation were buried there. Sacajawea’s granite memorial was the tallest. Beside it was one for Jean Baptiste, who had been the papoose on his mother’s back. Many of the graves were marked with carved granite, but many more were not. Some of the markers were crosses shaped of native sandstone, the names scripted with black paint on chipping white plaster. The graves were closely spaced, almost a jumble, as if no one need ever rest alone far from his kin. Ancient iron bedsteads stood rusted at the heads and heels of sleeping husbands and wives. Ribbons blew, and five-and-dime whirligigs twirled in the hot August wind. Toys, plastic cars and trucks, faded, stood motionless on the grave of a child, as if he had left them there while he ran off to lunch. Cockleburs hopped rides on my socks, and the stems of tall grasses bowed down as if paying respect, remembering those passed on in other seasons.
The next summer near Crowheart Butte, the yellow moon hung over the dark horizon like a cream soup spoon, slightly tarnished. It looked round and weighted, as if it would crush us if it fell. The powwow grounds were open to the night air, and the dancers’ footfalls landed on hard-packed earth. The perimeter was sheltered, and electric lights lit a rush of color. I sat huddled in my fleece jacket on the bleachers. Cold nights, the first week in June. I would know to bring a blanket next time. Behind me the thick aroma of Indian fry bread floated from a dimpled silver concession truck, and children lined up at its window, anticipating the taste of that hot, wonderful smell in their mouths and the fullness of it in their stomachs.
Men sat in lawn chairs around a drum and beat the rhythm of the dances. Wives and grandmothers sat behind them. The different drumming groups encircled the ring, and the drumming moved from one drum to the next. Dancers danced. They wore numbers like the ones I used to pin to my shirt when I ran the Peachtree Road Race. Male traditional dancers wore eagle-feather bustles tied to their waists. Fancy dancers wore them on their shoulders and arms, as well. One young man had tied iridescent silver CDs to his bustles. Men and women carried eagle feathers in straight fans with beaded handles. The female jingle dancers wore sheaths adorned with the lids of Copenhagen chewing tobacco cans twisted into cones. The silver jingles clicked together as they moved to the drumbeats.
I love to dance. I would have loved to dance at the powwow. But I watched. There is a dance I could have danced. Everyone, male and female of all origins and ages, is invited to dance in the intertribal dance. I could have danced that dance, but I watched.
Just be certain that you have in mind absolutely everything you know about silverware. Pieces in my silver pattern include jelly server, butter spreader, cream sauce ladle, sugar shell, cold meat fork, lemon fork, pickle fork and bonbon spoon. I have the butter knife, the sugar shell and six place settings of dinner knives, dinner forks and salad forks, teaspoons and soup spoons. The murder was execution-style, with a shot to the head.
Until I moved West, I had never watched a powwow. Never seen a Fourth of July parade. Never slept in a hospital bed.
On the Fourth of July, the great-great-granddaughters of Chief Washakie paraded astride the finest animals, their saddles decorated with beaded roundels of the wild rose, symbol of the Shoshone tribe. They wore their ceremonial dress. Soft, fringed elk hide and deerskin, intricate beadwork, feathers. On a flatbed trailer covered with Indian blankets and collected sage, the Clark Trumbell Drum Group and Singers joined Josephine Redman, 89-year-old parade marshal from the Northern Arapahoe tribe. Shoshone and Arapaho veterans in their Army, Navy and Marine uniforms, long braids, sunglasses and solemn feather bonnets, carried the American and Wyoming flags. The entire length of Main Street was crowded with citizens, young and old, Indian and white, and they all raised their hands to their hearts as the flags passed by.
Fire engines blasted and antique cars tooted. Children rushed forward to grab at candy flung into the street. A steady stream of cowboy hats, wagons, buggies and horses passed. My friend Harvey drove a red and green stagecoach pulled by a team of great, blond Belgian draft horses. At one end of the “Education Yesterday and Today” float, the school marm rang a bell while the prairie children waved their little blackboards. At the other end, students sat at desks topped with retired computers. The Indian students were absent.
Look over your inventory and ask yourself questions. You might come up with something like this: A. I wonder why some silverware is heavier than other silverware. B. What’s the meaning of the expression, “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”? C. Why do so many women want to own sterling silver? Why are we reading this? I turn to the front of the battered paperback. Copyright 1965. Almost 30 years ago. I am the substitute teacher. Tell them to stop reading. I don’t tell them to stop.
Our Fourth of July rodeo is the longest-running annual paid rodeo in the country. Over a hundred years. One of the events is the wild horse race. I watched from the stands as a jumble of cowboys and bareback horses sorted themselves out, as each horse was subdued, saddled and mounted. Two particularly rowdy horses bucked and circled, confounding the remaining pair of cowboys. “Those must be Indian ponies!” the announcer howled over the public address system, his joke no compliment. “Those must be white ponies,” the Indian man behind me muttered.
That night, explosions of fireworks punched the sky, and everyone seemed to go home satisfied, but today in this school, the Indian girls wear war paint on their voiceless mouths.
Some of the Indian parents are keeping their kids out of school, and many are threatening to withdraw their sons and daughters. Enroll them in the high school on the reservation. The whites are after the Indians again.
My friend Janie, who teaches math and algebra, is angry, too. She’s having to do her regular work many times over by writing out the makeup assignments and grading them separately while defiant Indian men-boys — some of them her students — are sitting out on the stone wall in front of the school, smoking cigarettes. And when she drove by South Elementary on her way home for lunch, she saw them shooting baskets into the too-low nets.
Last night I dreamed No Hall Passes. Everybody just stay in your proper classes, and everything will be all right. No. Murder has broken the usual order, and silver lips speak our differences. What is the difference between a clear soup spoon and a cream soup spoon? A clear soup spoon is the same as a tablespoon. A cream soup spoon is perfectly round.
Look for relationships.Why do so many women want to own sterling silver? With the same amount of money a woman could buy a great many beautiful things. But she chooses to buy silver. She may even make real sacrifices to buy it.
My pattern is “18th Century,” introduced in 1971 when I was a girl and my mother had a subscription to House Beautiful, where it was advertised. The design is simple: The handles are fluted, flaring into scallops at the end. When I was 22 and defining life on my own, I joined the Silver Club at Rich’s department store. For the pleasure of setting the pieces in their proper places on my unsteady table, I made monthly payments from my entry-level salary.
Obviously we tend to connect silver with riches. That silver spoon probably came down to us from an era when only kings and queens and noblemen could afford to own real silver.
Later I worked in a stylish silver building. A tall silver building in suburban Atlanta’s Perimeter Center. The windows didn’t open. The oil embargo had dictated the Btu of the air-conditioning system without forecasting the heat of hundreds of humming business machines. By afternoon, clouds of smoke obscured the acoustic ceiling as programmers linked lines of computer code while dragging at chains of cigarettes. The dark doors to the halls remained closed and locked for security.
Many days at lunch I changed out of my leather pumps and put on socks and my old running shoes. I fled to the remnant woods behind the building to eat by a small creek. There water striders strutted across pools that flowed over the bellies of water-smoothed rocks. I admired the sunlit rings that formed where their filament legs made contact with the water’s surface. In the fall a tulip poplar dropped her yellow skirt to the ground and raised her bare limbs to the sky, and I wanted to do the same. The fragrance of overripe grapes from a scabby muscadine vine shouted, “Come drink my wine!” But I couldn’t. I had to get back.
Can it be that silverware is a status symbol?
In my cubicle hung the Western Wilderness calendar. For months I kept that mountain scene from the Wind River Indian Reservation up on my wall. That blue granite mountain and violet lake. When thunderstorms built to violent force outside, I left my cube to stand at the curved windows and stare with my co-workers as shields of water clattered to the parking lot and coddled landscaping below.
During those years, I made monthly payments on the one new car I’ve ever owned. After work I waited at traffic lights with the air conditioner blowing air that smelled of engine exhaust and Freon. From tall aluminum poles, lusterless arrows and discs directed four lanes of cross traffic and four lanes of left turns. My nylon pantyhose and cotton underwear wore the wetness of waiting, and wrinkles set into my skirt and blouse as if by steam pressers.
So silver is a symbol of wealth, security, superiority.
My first summer in Wyoming, after the powwow in Crowheart and a weekend of camping in the Tetons, on an empty highway 15 minutes from home, my last thought was, “That car isn’t going to stop.” I saw his face, empty as a bottle. I didn’t want to believe in alcoholism on the Rez. By bloodline and years, he was an elder. I didn’t know government checks were issued on the first of the month. By blood alcohol, a stereotype. The one new car I have ever owned.
So beautiful were the blue-greens of the evening light, the greenness of the reservation’s pasture land, the deepening umber of the mountains, and the cool scent of the air as I waited for the siren. For weeks those shifting colors spread across my hip, and diamonds of windshield glass sprung forth around me. I’d strewn Highway 287 with them. They skittered across clean hospital tile. They appeared as if from the hinges of my joints, from the spirals of my hair, as manifestations of sharp thoughts. I still keep a few in a black lacquer box my father brought me from China.
A boy who dropped out of this school last year has been murdered. His body was found about a mile from where the river carries runoff from the Wind River Mountains into a hole below the dolomite cliffs. I am white. The accused are Indian.
And no matter which position you take, you must be able to defend it. That, after all, is the whole purpose of your essay — to defend your thesis.
The Indian girls wear silver lipstick. They read in the corner without comment or question. What do they make of these silver spoons? In school there is talk of drugs in connection with the murder. Does methamphetamine make all boys king?
Now you are uneasily aware that a rigid either/or position would be almost impossible to defend. So you must take one more step. Since you cannot possibly prove that sterling silver is always a status symbol, you must indicate the degree of truth in your thesis and, if possible, the circumstances under which you are considering it.
I’ve read that eagles are the messengers of heaven. They fly high and see all the goings on of the world below. Because of the virtues associated with the bird — strength, speed, freedom, aerial grace and hunting skills — their feathers represent honor and are highly valued. Feathers are given as gifts or granted in response to some act of discipline or humanity or to members of the armed forces for valor. The feathers represent the wearer’s virtues or an acknowledgment of his achievements.
Carrying a fan of eagle feathers is like holding the hand of a guide. Were a dancer to drop an eagle feather, he would not pick it up. A special, highly esteemed person would be called to make a prayer as part of returning the feather to its owner.
Your arguments might run something like this: Thesis A: The average housewife seldom uses her sterling silver. She “shows it off” exactly as her husband “shows off” his expensive new car — to impress their friends. Thesis B: The average housewife needs to surround herself with as many beautiful things as possible. Otherwise she is likely to find her life drab and meaningless. Far from being a mere status symbol, sterling silver is an intimate and enduring symbol of basic family relationships.
Mother’s pattern is “Royal Danish.” The handle is fluted, but instead of flaring at the end, it has the openwork pattern of a crown. One time when I was 10, I dropped one of Mother’s teaspoons down the garbage disposal. A dozen years later, I took that spoon to a silver repair service. They smoothed out the torn and bitten edges, and like a finger dipped in wax, it looks as if they dipped it in molten silver, but it was never really fixed. No one knows much about the murder.
After having considered both sides, you will settle eventually on the view that seems to you to be closest to the truth.
“I forgot my disk. Can I go to my locker and get my story?”
“Okay, then meet us at the computer lab.” My philosophy of substitute teaching: Be nice to the students and they will respond.
So always look very closely and objectively at views opposed to your own. If you do this, you may be forced to concede a point here and there, to qualify your thesis a little more strictly — but this merely leads to greater accuracy in presenting your own view.
The classroom revives with low whispers and movement of papers. After a few minutes, I go out with the class, turn off the lights, and lock the door. Do I make pleasant conversation with them in the hallway? Not really. We head down to the computer lab. Did that one make it back? Or the one who had to go to the restroom? Was he one of the ones who answered a hip “Yo” when I called his name from the roll? The heels of my shoes clack on the linoleum. I wish I’d worn something else.
In the computer lab I sit in one of the empty chairs between two dark-haired girls, one Indian, one not. Both sit in front of blank computer screens.
“I can’t think of anything to write,” says one.
“Write about anything you have an opinion on, anything you feel strongly about,” I coax.
“Can I write about my friend who was killed?”
The girl looks down into her lap and then up at the screen.
“Yeah, you can write about that.”
I turn to the girl on the other side. “What are you writing about?”
“Well, you must have an opinion on something. What do you like? What do you do?”
“Your jacket is from the Intertribal Powwow in South Dakota. Do you dance? Could you write about that?”
And then you are in a stronger position than ever to write your essay. You can defend your thesis with real conviction.
The bell rings and I look around. Only about a third of the class is left. The two girls. A pair of lovebirds who, to their credit, have been working on their essays. Some others. I wasn’t watching the doors. They’ve all snuck out.
I’ve dropped a teaspoon down the garbage disposal.
I don’t know how to pick up a feather that has fallen.
I don’t have a thesis.
With this essay, Chavawn Kelley completes a trilogy set in Wyoming’s Wind River country. The first of the three, “Why I Love the Dump,” appeared in Northern Lights and was honored as a Notable Essay in “The Best American Essays, 1997.” The second, “There Is No Such Thing As a Perfect Vacuum,” was awarded the Wyoming Arts Council’s Frank Nelson Doubleday Award. Kelley is also the recipient of the 2001 Wyoming Arts Council’s fellowship for nonfiction. She lives in Laramie, Wyo.
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