Indian ID, fiction by Eric Ramseier

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.

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