Luck & Pluck

Excerpt

Naked to the waist and seven thousand feet high, he stepped from his house. Facing the east, he raised his arms in salute to the rising sun, as did the Jxexqx. He raised his arms three times, shivering, and went back into the house.
          It was a single room on the third story of the terraced pueblo. The walls and floor were of old adobe bricks which sat in gums of dried mud like gap teeth. When the wind blew the bricks coughed a fine brown dental powder. Charlie Merriwell had hung a calendar on one wall and that was all. 
          Pouring cold water from a bucket into a basin, he shaved, then emptied the basin out a window at the rear of the room where the drop was over four hundred feet sheer. After combing his hair and putting on a denim shirt and jacket and pulling on his boots, he rolled up his sleeping bag and packed everything he owned into a suitcase. That done, he stood for a minute looking around the room.  It had been his home for a year. Then, clicking off the dusty light bulb which dangled from the ceiling, he picked up his bedroll and suitcase, went outside, closed the door, backed down a ladder to the terrace of the second story, and down another ladder to ground level.
          He hiked along the pueblo street and stopped before the house of the Governor, or cacique. Here an eagle was tethered to a perch. When feathers were needed for a ceremony, they were always available. Charlie walked up to him. He thought of taking a feather, for they were very powerful medicine, but the eagle spread his great wings and cocked his beak and it was apparent he was not in a giving mood this morning.
          “So long, Edgar,” said Charlie.
          He had named the eagle in memory of J. Edgar Hoover, because he kept an eye on things.
          “Keep an eye on things, Edgar,” he said, and hiked off down the street.
          He passed the souvenir shop where the Jxexqx sold postcards and pottery to infrequent tourists. Many of the pueblos in New Mexico were situated close to an interstate highway, and coined money, but this one, although the most spectacular, was out in the middle of nowhere. At the end of the street Alvin Small Salt was waiting in his pickup. Charlie dropped his bedroll and suitcase into the back and climbed into the cab.
          “How,” he said.
          “How,” said Alvin, who eased the truck into low gear and began to grind them down the steep road off the mesa. When they reached bottom Alvin upshifted and put a spur to the pickup and they headed out across the reservation. It was forty miles to Grants. For the first ten they were silent because they were friends and about to say goodbye. 
          Alvin broke into song. “’After the dance, honey, I’ll take you home in  my one-eyed Ford….’” He stopped, whistled a few more bars, and said finally, “Nice morning.”
          “Sure is.”
          “Where’s your gover’ment car?”
          “Took it to the GSA garage yesterday. Hitched back to Grants and caught a ride out here with Joe Pony Toes.”
          “How come you didn’t take right on off?”
          “A year’s a year. Mine wasn’t up till today.”
          “One day early? Who’dve known?”
          “I would.”
          Alvin sucked on a toothpick. “You ever been to Los Angeles before?”
          “No.”
          “I hear it’s real spread out.”
          “That’s what they say.”
          “I hear beautiful girls grow on the trees like or’nges.”
          “I hope.”
          “What’s the biggest city you ever been to?”
          “St. Louis.”
          “You scared?”
          “Nope.”
          The truck sashayed over a vast and arid tableland. Sand scoured the undersides and rocks twanged the axles. In the distance was Mount Taylor, capped with snow even in August. 
          “Advertising, huh?”
          “That’s right.”
          “I hear jobs are scarce.” Alvin was a timekeeper at a uranium mine near Grants and his wife was a checker in a supermarket there.  “How you gonna go about it?”
          “Pound the pavements.”
          “You know anybody?”
          “Nope.”
          “How long can you hold out?”
          “Well, I got my terminal pay yesterday, in Albuquerque. Three hundred bucks. And I’ve saved a couple hundred.”
          “Out of seventy-five a month?”
          “What was there to spend it on?”
          “Five hundred won’t last many moons in L.A.”
          “Moons enough.”
          “It’s good to meet a man with faith in the Great White Father.”
          Charlie propped a bootheel against the dashboard and pushed his ten-gallon up on his forehead. The brim had a Houston roll and the band he made himself of beer-can pull rings. “No, in the system,” he said. “Free Enterprise, Build a Better Mousetrap, the American Way, and all that. I really do. If you’ve got what it takes, you’ll make it.” He frowned. “You guys and other minorities no way, of course.”
          “Of course.”
          “Also, after a year like this I figure society owes me a job.”
          “What if it don’t figure? Would you come back to the blanket?”
          “It will. I wouldn’t.”
          “Tell me the deal again.”
          “Well,” said Charlie, “My year’s up as of yesterday. Now I have a thirty-day terminal period. Any time during that period I can change my mind and give the word to OEO in Albuquerque and sign on for another year. With a raise to a hundred a month. But if they don’t hear from me in thirty days I’m finito, off the list, so long YARF, and Washington sends me a certificate of thanks from a grateful nation.  To frame.”
          “But you’re bailing out.”
          “Yup.” Charlie sat up. “Do you realize I haven’t shaved with warm water in a year? Or watched television? Or dated a girl? Or slept with one? I’m so horny the doe rabbits have been looking good to me lately. If you want to know, I’m twenty-three years old, damn near twenty-four, and I’m full up to here of giving. I’m hot to get.  Out in the world. To reap the wheat. To wear the threads and drive the cars and have the good times and live like a, like a--“
          “White man?”
          Charlie settled down. “I’m sorry, Red Friend. Pardon the oration.”
          They were silent again. A coyote loped across the road ahead of them. They passed a house in front of which a woman was baking bread in a beehive oven. She waved and they waved.
          “Was it worth it?”
          “What?”
          “Your year here.”
          “Oh. Sure. Absolutely. Best year of my life. These are about the nicest people anywhere. I wish I could’ve done lot more, though.”
          “Just being here was enough. We appreciate it but we don’t show it. That’s the way we are.”
          They reached the interstate highway and turned onto it and passed a billboard with an arrow pointing south inviting tourists to visit the “Pueblo of  the Jxexqx Most Spectacular Pueblo And Oldest Continuously Inhabited Place On North American Continent Guides Souvenirs Native Crafts Only A Short Drive Don’t Miss It Cold Drinks.”
          “We’re sorry to see you go, Mister Charlie,” Alvin said as they neared Grants, using the name his people had used. 
          “I’m sorry myself,” Charlie said, adding, “In a way. In a way not.”
          They parked at the bus stop, which was also a hardware and TV repair and secondhand furniture store, unloaded the bedroll and suitcase, and Charlie bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. The bus was due in about three minutes.
          “What we oughta do,” Alvin said, “is exchange gifts. You know, the  way they used to after they signed a treaty. We’d give them fur and they’d give us beads.”
          “But I don’t have anything. Do you?”
          “Sure.”
          “Oh. Well. Hey, try this on for size.” Charlie took off his hat.
          It fit. “Thanks,” Alvin said. “I hear Western stuff is big in the cities these days. Here.” From a jacket pocket he pulled a small deerskin pouch and handed it to Charlie.
          “Hey, thanks. What’s in it?”
          “Corn meal.”
          “Yeah? Well thanks. Corn meal? I mean, what do you do with it?”
          “When you go into a new place, like a house or a bar or a kiva, shake out a little and say, ‘Hi ah hai e lu’ and the gods will be good to you in that place.”
          “Even in Los Angeles?”
          “Why not?”
          “’Hi ah hai e lu,’” Charlie repeated. “What’s it mean?”
          “Damn if I know.”
          The bus came into sight down the main street of Grants.  “There she is,” Charlie said. “Say, have you got any final words of tribal wisdom for me? I’ve memorized every one of the others. You never know when they might come in handy.”
          Alvin was doubtful. “We’re a small tribe. And we’re underprivileged. I’ve given you just about all of our gems.”
          “You must have one more. You’re the son of the Governor.  You’ve got to pass these things along.”
          “I do?” Alvin took off his new hat and scratched his head. “Oh yeah. Here’s one. Sometimes we say, ‘It it bad luck to see a crow at night in camp.”
          Charlie nodded. “It is bad luck to see a crow at night in camp,” he repeated. “Hmmmm. Probably very deep when you think about it.”
          “Okay, you think about it in Los Angeles.”
          The bus stopped and Charlie gave his luggage to the driver to load and shook hands with Alvin Small Salt.
          “Take care of Edgar.”
          “Take care of your social conscience.”
          “Keep in touch.”
          “You, too.”
          “I’ll send along my address.”
          “So long, Mister Charlie.”
          “So long, Noble Savage.”
          Charlie climbed aboard and the driver closed the door and the bus rolled.
          Barreling along between Grants and Gallup, he took the deerskin pouch with drawstring out of his pocket and looked at it. “Hi ah hai e lu,” said Charlie Merriwell to himself. “Hi ah hai e lu.”

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