Winter 2013 — THE POTOMAC


  Caryn Coyle

He doesn’t look very friendly. He’s got one of those God awful tattoos on his arm, an eagle. I think that’s what it is. With this headache, I might not be seeing things right.

“These are self-cleaning. Do you want a self cleaning oven?” I ask him, to cover my fuzz. My mouth tastes like poop.

“What’s the difference?” he asks me.

For some reason, I think of my dad’s tattoo. A Navy anchor. “Oh, the self cleaning one can go up to like a gazillion degrees and it turns anything you may have spilled inside into ash that you just brush away,” I tell him.

“Thought you said it was self cleaning,” he stands in the space between my work station and the row of stark, blinding white stoves. His long gray hair is in a goddamn braid. It looks like it goes down his back. I’ll check when he turns around. Why in the hell did he have to come to me? I wish I could just slip out the back, take in a couple of tokes.

“Excuse me?” I ask him. I try to show respect. These people have had it tough. I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I know.

But he’s got the money to buy a nice new stove, and I don’t. I have to work here for eight dollars an hour. Thirty-nine years old, making just over minimum wage. I deserve better.

My story gets worse. I just buried my dad. He died a few weeks ago, but I had to wait so I could bury him in Arlington National Cemetery. Too damn many funerals going on. Between Iraq and the World War II vets -- like my dad -- there was a freakin’ six week delay to get him in the mausoleum. He was cremated, so he didn’t take up much room.

The Indian is walking up and down the aisle. Yup, I can see that damn braid now. It does go pretty far down his back. Why in the hell does he think that looks good? Do chicks dig it? C’mon! It looks greasy and thin to me. He’s tied it at the back of his neck with a rubber band and some raw-hide string. Beads and feathers are strung at both ends. Hideous. But I won’t judge. That’s his thing. He has a right to his Indian junk. This is the United States of America.

“This stove is damaged!” The Indian guy is crouching down on the floor, Christ! He looks like he’s waiting to ambush somebody. The end of his braid is actually swishing on the fake tile floor.

“Oh, I’ll get you a discount if you want that one.” I can slip outside for a couple of minutes if I can talk him into it. This is such a pain. I am a college educated guy. I shouldn’t have to stoop so low. I’ve got several feelers out, though. I had a management position last winter at the Bank of America, though my work space was just a kiosk by the fresh produce at the Pride of the Pantry grocery store. Of course that wasn’t the salary I should be making, either. But still, it was pretty good money. Better than this. I’m not really into bank management. They had me working as a glorified clerk, and I didn’t know we were twelve hundred short one day. It wasn’t my fault. Someone who worked under me had messed up. An accounting error. That’s all. They found the money the next day. I didn’t think it was any big deal — especially since it was never really lost.

God, I miss my folks. My mom died a few years ago. Heart attack. I found her on the kitchen floor. She’d fallen down, broken her tooth. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. If I’d only gotten up earlier that morning, I might have heard her. Saved her.

Dad had Lou Gehrig’s disease. I thought I was prepared for him to go, but when he died, it was pretty bad, too.

The house is so empty now. But there are reminders of them everywhere. My mom liked to collect stuff; too many goddamn knickknacks that I cannot throw out. I hear her telling me not to every time I look at them: ceramic clowns, dogs, pigs. She was really fond of pigs. She also liked flowers, there are vases of plastic flowers in every room. My dad’s stuff is still around, too. A couple of his wheel chairs are folded in a corner of my computer room and in the dining room. One’s motorized, though it conked out a few months before he died. He was staying in bed all the time by then, anyway. Didn’t want anyone to touch him. Said his skin hurt.

I sit outside now that the weather’s warmer. My buddy, Toby will come over and have a couple of beers with me. He’ll give me a ride to work, too. I pay him, of course. Gas money, really. I live six miles from this place and I get my license back in another three months. That wasn’t my fault either. I wasn’t drunk. I’d only had a few beers.

“Are you going to tell me what you’ll sell this floor model for?” The Indian has risen from his crouch. Christ, he’s tall. He’s rolled the sleeves up on a flannel shirt with ugly brown checks on them. That eagle tattoo is on his forearm. I wonder if there’s more on his upper arm. Is it true that they don’t have any hair on their chests? I can’t see any on his arms.

“Let me ask the manager,” I turn around and head back to the offices. The door to the loading dock is ajar. Someone’s left a brick in the doorway. Good. It’s already propped open, and I didn’t do it. I’m not due for another break yet, but I need to clear my head.

It’ll only take a second.

I pull out the roach I stashed in my back pocket. It’s pretty small, but I can light it with the matches I have stashed there too. The first deep drag is a little rough, but I don’t give in to my urge to cough. I’ll get maybe two more tokes out of this. Then, I should be good to go.

The ache behind my eyes begins to fade. I feel almost giddy. But I have to talk to Tom, the manager. God, I hate that guy. I slip back inside and head to his office.

I can see papers stacked and piled like cars in a junk yard. The mess in his office is hideous. He has stupid inspirational posters too. “Teamwork” one of them says, and a bunch of guys are rowing in a boat on some pretty nice looking water. Not really something we’d do here at Brown’s Discount Home Improvement.

“Hey, Tom. There’s a guy out there on the floor who wants one of the self cleaning ovens we have on display. Only there’s a dent in it. What can we do for him?” Tom is standing by his desk when I come in. He turns around to look at me. He never smiles.

I am taller than Tom. He’s got a ridiculous mustache that droops over both corners of his mouth. Why they ever gave him the manager’s job instead of me is something I’ll never understand. Sure, he’s been here longer than me, but I don’t think he ever even went to college. Never mind graduated, like I did. I have a degree in English, which is pretty useless here.

“Tell him we’ll waive the delivery charge,” Tom finally says. “You ok? You look tired.” He has been pretty nice to me, took up a collection for me when my dad died. Two hundred dollars. But he’s got a stupid looking tie on that I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. It’s an ugly maroon with little squiggly things all over it. I’m in the tasteful company polo shirt they gave me — it didn’t cost me anything — under the apron we have to put on, with the store logo on it.

The Indian is waiting for me. He has crossed his arms. Christ. It makes him look like a chief. All he needs is a headdress of feathers. I wonder, again, if they have any hair on their bodies. He doesn’t look like he has to shave his face much. There is a trace of a beard, but he is clean-shaven otherwise.

“We’ll waive the delivery charge if you want this one,” I tell him.

“What is the delivery charge?”

“Seventy-five dollars.” I look at the dent. It’s not too bad. It’s on the side of the stove. If he is moving it into a part of the kitchen that has cabinets or drawers on either side, it won’t even matter.

“Seventy-five dollars!” The Indian looks at the dent, too. He has to crouch down again. Are they always tall like that? I only know them from TV movies and, of course, that book, Bury My Heart. It sure made them sound sad. They kept getting promise after promise from — what did they call him — the great father in Washington, D.C.? The U.S. government kept breaking or ignoring the treaties they made with the Indians, shoving them onto land where they could not live, no way to grow crops, or hunt game. And killing them, like dogs. No, worse than dogs. They were brutal. So, I feel for him. He’s lost a lot. So have I. My parents, my driver’s license, my ability to make some real money. This Indian and I have a connection.

“So, have you read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?”

The Indian just looks at me. He kind of changes his expression.

“I just thought it was a good book.” I put my hands up to show I mean no offense.

“Could we … finish this transaction?” he asks and nods at the little counter I use to type up my sales on the store’s computer.

“Oh, sure!” I tap out my code number. “I just thought I’d tell you I am sensitive to your history. I can see you are Native American.”

“I appreciate that,” he replies. “But I really need to get this stove thing done.”

“Well, I only wanted to express my sympathies to you. I’ve been through a lot too, myself.” I pause at the keyboard to see if that registers with him.

“You aren’t Native, are you?”

“Who? Me? No. No. I don’t have a drop in me. My folks were French, I think and Italian.” I reach out to shake his hand. “Name’s Hank Testa.”

He takes my hand, pumps it up and down, “Wyatt Thunderfire. Can we finish this?”

“Sure. Sure, Mr. Thunderfire,” I say, “Just so you know, I think the way the American government treated your people sucks. Like I said, I’ve had my own troubles. I just buried my dad and I know loss, believe me.”

“Sorry to hear that,” he says as he glances at his watch. “But I have somewhere I need to be in half an hour.”

“Ok, sure. Here we go.” I return to the keyboard. “Now are you going to take the one off the floor for the seventy-five dollar delivery charge discount?”

“Actually, I don’t need it delivered. I could take it home in my truck, outside. Can you knock off seventy-five dollars from the price instead?”

Shit, I’m going to have to walk back to Tom’s office again. “I’ve got to check that out,” I tell him.

“You can’t just take off the seventy-five dollars so we can finish this?”

I can see that he is looking at me as though I am some kind of wimp who can’t make a decision. A stupid discount, and I can’t even do it.

“You’re right. Sure.” I say, smiling. I am nobody’s lackey. Tom can go to hell. I try to punch in a seventy-five dollar discount to the listed price and it won’t go through. “Crap,” I say as I press one stupid key, then another.

“What’s wrong?” Wyatt Thunderfire asks. He comes up behind me to peer at the computer screen.

My head is screaming at me again. I feel empty. I do not want to tell him that I don’t have the authority or the security clearance to put the discount through. “Computer’s stuck!” I say. “Can’t you just write it out on a paper receipt for me? I really need to get going.”

“I wish I could, but we don’t make them anymore,” I lie.

“Well, what’s this?” He reaches beyond me to pick up a blank paper receipt, which we use when the computer jams. “Looks like one to me. Here’s my credit card.” He takes his wallet out from his back pocket.

I feel my face growing red. My heart’s pounding. I hope I’m not having a heart attack. This is so stupid. I am dependable, honest, resilient. I took care of my dad, ran the house. Though he was bed ridden, I was able to figure it out. But I can’t turn a stupid delivery charge into a discount for this guy. He’s going to think I am such a loser.

I pick up the house phone. The damn thing just rings and rings. Typical. “I’m trying to call back there for you, but no one is picking up,” I tell the Indian. “I’m not going to be able to give you the seventy-five dollar discount without an approval.”

We stand there, looking at each other, and my dad pops into my head, again. He’d do the same thing, sometimes: look at me, saying nothing. I’d be smoking with my friends out by the holly trees in our back yard. The folks couldn’t see us over there. I guess Dad could smell it on me; the look he gave me made me feel like rot. I wanted him to be proud of me. I think he was, in the end. He couldn’t move, so I’d have to adjust him in his bed. He’d watch TV while I was here, at work. Before I’d leave each morning, I’d hold onto his sides, as gently as I could, scooting him into the center of the bed. His right side was paralyzed. He couldn’t move that leg or hand. So he ate with his left. I made a spoon for him out of a ladle. I taped a couple of butter knives to the handle so he could grip it. When he couldn’t put the spoon up to his mouth anymore, I knew the end was near. The last night he stayed with me at home, I had to feed him. The next day I called the ambulance to take him to the hospice place. He died two days later and I never made it out there to see him again.

Wyatt fishes into his wallet, pulls out a card, and hands it to me. “Call me.”

“Ok, sure!” I tell him. I don’t tell him that I was just thinking about my dad. I might have been staring off for a few moments. But Wyatt smiles when he gives me his card. I don’t think he is pissed off about the discount.

I glance at the card. There is a drawing, in black and white, of the same eagle he had on his arm. The other side of the card says: “Wyatt Thunderfire. Substance Abuse Counselor. By Appointment Only.” There is a phone number at the bottom. I’ll give him a call later when I talk to Tom. I know I can close this deal.

Top | Home / Mailing List / Contact
All materials, text, images © The Potomac. All rights reserved.