I have this plastic laminated card that says I'm an Indian. It has my name on it, the tribe I'm from—some kind of Cherokee, and my picture. It needs my picture because I don't look like an Indian at all. I could be the cover photo for some neo-Nazi's utopian novel. My dad made me go up to the reservation north of town to sit for the photo and get the card. You never know, he said and left it at that. He meant that I might need it because of the minority status, like if I didn't get into the college I want or I needed to get a scholarship or something, I would just mark down that I'm American Indian and they would bend over backwards to welcome me. He never had to use it, he made me well aware, but, again, you just never know. I mostly use the card to buy beer.
The ride up to the reservation is always the same. When we cross the bridge over the Kansas River and I look down and think what a great place the banks would be for paintball with all the tall reeds and sand bars and cottonwoods. I feel a bit guilty for dreaming this sort of thing. It's like when I catch myself staring at the baseball cards in the grocery store—I am too old for that kind of stuff now. At least I believe I am supposed to think and feel that. The highway north is always empty except for semi trucks and farm equipment, and the sky is so blue that it appears purple-gray. Maybe I always think there is a storm. That is where they always come from, dumping rain, making the air smell stale and dangerous, causing the dogs to howl then cower under furniture. There is a bizarre mixture of cookie-cutter fake-mall suburbs encroaching on wild prairie. We'll see all this tall grass and farmer's weed, then all of the sudden there's a Casey's General Store, a strip mall with a Chinese food place and a fireworks stand, and a half completed subdivision of houses.
It's always the two of us. Dan and me. We aren't popular, and we aren't nerds. We are just there. Connected only because we are neighbors and known each other forever. Dan wants to be popular. He asks me, "What's your favorite kind of beer?" We are in the gas station just inside the reservation borders. It's not like regular gas stations. It's not bright and clean with aisle after aisle of candy and chips. The walls are wood paneling. There's fishing bait on one aisle. There's only two refrigerated cases. There's almost no name-brand food. The plastic wrapping on the food looks old, like it's brittle and ready to crack. "I don't have a favorite beer," I say. And I don't. It all tastes like I'm sucking wet bread through a straw. I just like what happens when I drink a lot of it. The world isn't the same anymore. Things slow down. Thoughts come slower. If I move my head fast, I can still see the outline of what I was just looking at. "I like the highest percent beer." I say. "Jen likes Heineken. We could see if they have it," Dan says. But I don't want to buy beer for everyone. I don't want to be known as the hookup. I don't want the attention. I don't want the responsibility. I shrug at Dan. We both know there is little chance that there will be Heineken in this store.
The cashier eyes us the whole time. He knows we aren't eighteen. He looks like an Indian. Straight black hair. Looks like he played football. I wonder what his life is like. How is an Indian that different from me? I am the legal limit of Indian to have the card I have and to get the possible government benefits. I think it was my grandmother's grandmother who was full-blooded some kind of Cherokee. I've seen pictures. She looks severe. The cashier looks severe, too. Maybe that's the main difference. No one has ever described me as severe, and I do not think of myself this way. I pull the card out of my wallet and place it in front of the cashier. It's like a pass to underage drinking. He unfolds his arms and examines the card. I think I detect a smile forming. "Okay, man. Just the beer?" he asks. Dan has a suitcase of a brand of beer that we have only seen on the reservation—they certainly don't advertise it on TV—in each hand. He knows the drill. He lifts the beer up to the counter without letting go—as though this were all a ruse and it might get taken away from him—while the cashier runs a barely-working laser wand over the bar code. I have a twelve pack in my free hand. We pay the money we earned from our after-school jobs and walk out like it's any other transaction at any other store.
When we get to the car, though, it's a different story. War cries. It's like we got away with something, and I suppose we did. None of us are even close to eighteen. We are barely old enough to drive. It's like liquid gold, what we have. "Is there some place around here where we could start drinking it?" Dan asks. He has a shitty life, though no one can quite figure out why. He likes to drink even more than me. But Dan always has answers, and he always comes off as being full of shit. He always wants to take that one step further from the edge.
Dan's house is where we drink, though. His parents are always off on business trips or vacations, and his siblings have all moved out. We never start at his house, though. Most of the kind of kids that hang out at our high school hang out in the parking lot of the furniture store. It is tucked away in a residential section and isn't well lit. The only times cops come out are when there is a fight that gets too loud and an elderly neighbor calls in. I don't like to advertise how much beer we have, so we park and take it one at a time. Whenever someone popular asks where we got it, we always say my parent's-fridge-and-this-is-all-we-could-score.
"Aw, shit, Jen is here," Dan says. "Act cool." We don't do anything different. Except Dan makes it clear that he is in possession of beer. He pokes a hole in the bottom of the can with a screwdriver, shotguns it, crushes it with his hand and smashes it against the pavement. Jen sees this. On some level, everyone sees this.
Jen has a platoon. She is not the leader of the platoon, but it's easy to imagine a situation in which she overthrows the current leader and becomes despot. "Do you have more of that," Jen asks. Dan reaches in the backseat and produces a can for her. The rest of her platoon huffs and snorts, so he gets cans for them as well. I move to the other side of the car, not wanting to participate. "Fuckin' party," Dan says just below a yell. The platoon, including Jen, roll their eyes. The beer by now is warm and cheap, so of course they don't like it. It offers no relief from the sweating night. "What is this swill?" Jen asks. One says, "I'm so trashed right now," after three sips. They ask for more, and Dan delivers. "So what are we doing after this?" Dan asks. "Uh, we have the car wash fundraiser tomorrow for the dance team, so we are out of here after this," Jen replies, all attitude. "Nice, maybe I'll have to drop by and get my car washed," Dan says.
The god damned dance team. Dan's blinded by sperm backed up so far in his brain that he doesn't realize he's being played. But I'm not. Relationships in my high school are always about give and take and I'm not aware of any commodity I might offer beyond the ability to get beer. It's not stable enough. I learned just like everyone else that I am my own unique individual and that something about that is special, but I can't stand the thought of being rejected. Everyone talks to and about each other. I don't want people talking about me. And if there is one thing the dance team does, it's talk.
I sit on the hood of the car, my back against the windshield. My head rests on a piece of the metal trim bent up from the seam. It's painful, but a good kind of pain. The kind of pain that lets me know I am present even as I drink can after can of the foul smelling beer. Someone says, "I almost vomited in my mouth. Isn't that so funny?" And there is the corresponding laughter. I suddenly realize I am in a hideous town with hideous people and I need to get away from here as soon as possible. I suppose I have always known that, but staring up at the stars, I recognize this isn't the only place in the world, that there are people living in completely different places and doing completely different things. I want to be one of them.
The beer runs out. That happens when a platoon of people share it with you. They march off, and Dan is left with blue balls. "It's all about making headway," he says. "I've laid a foundation for future encounters. This is the legwork, and you don't always see results with legwork. The results present themselves later on down the line." I see how I'm like Dan, too. I don't let on. I keep my suffering to myself.
Dan is in the back seat kicking the empty cardboard boxes and empty aluminum cans out of frustration when I hear a dull thud. "Thank fucking Christ," he says, digging out the twelve pack I had bought. "They didn't take all our beer." We end up at Dan's house.
Both of our houses are set up basically the same way. Above the front door of our split levels are the typical trappings of suburbia. An entrance way with embarrassing family photos from ten years ago, a living room with down-home charm and the occasional kitschy decorative touch, the parents' conservative master bedroom, the teenagers' rooms with questionable smells emanating from within. Downstairs, though, is another story. Tucked away into the little-used second TV room amongst the furniture that didn't match anywhere else and the Christmas decorations stood the family computer which doubled as a depository of the most depraved pornography we could find. I am no different. I would like to say that I am, but I am not.
Watching terrible movies is usually how we finish off a night like tonight, but when we go downstairs, there is already a blue-green glow coming from the television. Dan's brother is sitting on paisley couch, his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. If there was one thing you didn't do in any of our houses, it mess with the carefully cultivated sandalwood scent. There are stories about Dan's brother. He was this straight-laced guy all through high school. He was 4.0, clean cut, and going on a free ride to KU. But something happened to him after he graduated—nobody, not even Dan, knew what—and he simply didn't go to college. It was sort of unthinkable. Then he grew out his hair and grew a beard. He started taking all kinds of weird drugs no one we knew could even imagine getting. He went on a vision quest in the desert. He went to Mexico and robbed banks. He started a folk band in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Dan never talked about him, so who knew what was true. I could never connect my memory of his brother with those stories, but he looks every bit the part. He's wearing mismatched plaids and a blazer even though its humid outside. His eyes are glazed over. His hair is stringy and greasy. He looks as worn out as the knees of his trousers. "Look what the cat dragged in," he says as we file down the stairs. "One of those beers for me?" I look at Dan. "You're not supposed to be here if mom and dad aren't," Dan finally says.
Dan eventually steps forward with a beer in hand. "What do you say to a trade?" he says. "How do you mean?" his brother replies. "I mean you got anything stronger for our troubles?" I want to say 'what the fuck are you doing?' I want to say that I'm fine with beer, that's tame enough, but there are stories, and I don't want things to get out of control. I say nothing, though. Maybe he just has marijuana. Who cares about that? I look at Dan and he looks deflated, like he's crumbling to pieces on the inside. And I don't get it. "Sure, little Danny, I've got something stronger." I realize just how much I don't know Dan and why he does what he does. Dan's brother continues, "But we should get out of here. I need some air."
We pile back into the car because what else could we do, and Dan's brother cracks his beer—something we would never think of doing. Dan starts driving, as per his brother's instructions, with no destination in mind but mindful of where cops typically have DUI checkpoints. Neighborhood streets shouldn't be a problem, though. I look at Dan's brother in the rearview and wonder how that happens. He has a menace about him that was never there before. I wanted to pretend it wasn't there, but this was not the same guy I knew. "How'd you kids even get this beer?" he asks finishing off the can and tossing it out the window. We explain about my card and how Indians look the other way for other Indians. "No shit? You're an Indian? I did not know that." I didn't like him taking a personal interest in me. I kept quiet, only nodding at his questions. "This will work on pretty damn well, then. Let's head up to Burnett's Mound."
In elementary school we all learned that when this city was founded, the city father's bought a bunch of pasture land from Chief Burnett. We didn't learn that he was plied with whiskey and then booted from his property. Not to be outdone, he did as the affronted often do and cursed the land. He said that so long as no man-made structure was built on his mound, the city would be safe from natural disaster. He knew man-made structures would be built there as soon as possible. There was a lot of spite both ways back then. Eventually, he was buried on that mound, though the grave marker was long gone, and tornados tore through city in 1966 and then one time in the 80s and again when I was in fourth grade and cowering in the hallway with my hands folded over my neck.
We drive to the top where a barbed wire fence separated us from the enormous beige water tower that was built into the side of the mound. Dan's brother wraps his blazer around a section of barbed wire and scales the fence. Dan tosses the rest of the beer to him and climbs the fence as well. I feel left behind. I don't remember many pregnant pauses shared with Dan, but we share one now. I'm not so drunk that I don't know what's going on, but I am drunk enough not to care, so I follow. We are not walking through virgin prairie back there, as I had thought we could be. Crumpled candy wrappers and plastic bags litter the ground. We see a few used condoms and lost frisbees. The grass is overgrown and our socks collect cockleburs with every step.
We follow Dan's brother up the iron ladder welded on to the side of the water tower. It's smooth and slick on top. The metal is sweating from the heat. From there, though, we can see the lights of the entire city. It's so depressing seeing the terminus. We each open our last beers. From his pants pocket Dan's brother produces a handful of brown buttons. "This is straight up Anasazi peyote. I got it off an old medicine man. It's totally legit. Take one and swallow." We each swallow a button and wash it down with the beer. It tastes bitter, and I wonder if I'm going to throw it up before it has a chance to work. "Why do we have to be up here to take this?" I ask. I have never taken the stuff before, obviously, and don't know what it does. I start to have concerns for my safety. "This is cursed Indian land. This is Indian drugs. This is the only place in town worthy of taking this stuff. I want to see if it messes you up more," he says. "I want to see if you can summon the spirit of Chief Burnett. If you can kill a buffalo with your bare hands." Dan laughs, but his brother seems serious.
My face burns. I feel like I'm being asked to perform. The two of them stare at me, so I turn my back on them and step to the edge. Far off to the west I see heat lightning. I crouch down hoping the peyote will take possession of me, and I'll no longer be here. I wonder what the cashier on the reservation is doing. I wonder if I could get a job at the gas station. I could take the shift after him and sell beer only to people that have their laminated cards. I realize that, too, is a nightmare, and I just want to go home. I want to go to bed. I won't even mind tomorrow when I'll wake up with that feeling of not knowing whether I'm hungry or sick.
The two of them stand behind me. "Oh man, you should do a dance and see if you can call the storm this way," Dan's brother says. "Yeah," Dan adds, "Maybe it's like this innate thing you can do." I look up and Dan, but he's not helping. He won't see that I don't want to participate, and I feel betrayed. "Come on, man." "Yeah," they urge.
I get up but do so too fast. I lose my footing and fall off the water tower. It's probably twenty feet, but I feel like I'm falling forever. I do finally land. I know I'm not paralyzed because a dirty newspaper ends up on my face, and I remove it and am once again looking up at the stars. My body tingles, and I hope it's the peyote. All is silent, and I think about what I was about to do. My natural inclination would be to just do a goofy dance to remove the tension and move on to another topic. But I'm not so sure that's what I was going to do. I might've been confrontational. I might have really laid into those insensitive pricks. Told them to go to hell and they weren't going to be using me anymore. That it was cruel how they were treating me. That I wasn't even really an Indian. I knew nothing about it. My heart pumps harder as I grow more and more convinced that this is what I was going to do. I feel sweat beading on my face. Or maybe it was rain; perhaps I did conjure a storm. I close my eyes and hope it is the peyote. My body quakes. I hear rustling in the grass around me and open my eyes. Two figures surround me. "Jesus, are you dead?" one of them asks. "If you aren't, get up. We want to go get more beer." I wiggle my fingers and toes and reach out to the stars. They looks so close, yet I know that I won't touch them. I mouth 'Fuck you,' but I don't think I actually say the words. I shut my eyes tight, and I feel weird. I hope it is the peyote. I want it to be the cool light of day, and I want to be running through the grass with a smile on my face. I want to grab an orphaned frisbee or my Indian ID card and loft it into the air. I can't do this. I just can't do this.