Word Count: 5300 words
Genre: Literary fiction
Warnings: No content warnings apply
Summary: The Four Corners is the only place in the United States where four states come together at a point. It is part of the Navajo Nation and also where four friends become family. By giving the tourists the “Indian Experience” they’ve always wanted they also discover for themselves just what it means to be Navajo.
Notes: This story turned out way more personal then I had ever imagined. These are all stories I thought I’d never tell (Well except for Thomas, I don’t know where he came from). Originally written for junetide
On a precipice at the end of the world is a highway: almost abandoned, almost impassable, almost entirely eaten up by decay and lack of funds. It winds and climbs between the desert below and the mountain range far above. The worst jag of this relic of tourism runs through and around the Navajo Nation.
Clara sits in a rickety lawn chair, its plastic frayed and giving so that it fits her frame alone. Anyone else sat there and they’d surely careen off the edge. She sits beside her trailer and her makeshift curio shop. Tourists came to the Four Corners for many reasons. The scenery was a major one, of course, but what most tourists wanted to see, though few would admit it, was a culture not their own. They wanted to see first hand how the other half lived. Well, no, that wasn't exactly right: they didn't really want to see how they lived, they wanted to see how they had once lived, they wanted beads, feathers, headdresses and turquoise. They most certainly didn't want the poverty, broken treaties and crippling alcoholism. They wanted pretty little trinkets, not worn down dreams. And it wasn't the other half, it was more the other half of one percent. That's about how many Natives were left. If that.
So Clara and her people were a curiosity, a mystery that was exotic and yet tied to the same bit of earth as them, but somehow mystically above it all. The tourists wanted romantic notions and stoic stereotypes. She and her friends had absolutely no problem giving them what they wanted--for a price.
She accomplished this by sitting out here on this patch of road making and selling jewelry and trinkets that were both authentically Navajo and exorbitantly over-priced. When she wasn't doing that, she was helping her friends Johnny, Johnny Jr. (no relation) and Thomas work their schemes. Vision Quests and Drum Circles mostly, which weren’t as hokey as ghost towns and Old West theme parks, but weren’t exactly true to any sort of life they lived either.
They didn't really think of them as cons. Mostly the tourists got their money's worth. They were, after all, taken by horseback into some of the most remote and stunning land, and they also got a weekend with a seasoned tour guide, a chef renowned for his talent with local cuisine, camping in the choicest locales and a storyteller who kept them enthralled with his stories, no matter how convoluted they were, nor how devoid of actual tradition or fact. Plus, Clara gave them lessons in Navajo art and made sure that each one of them left their retreat with their very own turquoise charm or dream catcher. It wasn't a con. No matter how much of it was a lie.
"That's beautiful," a young woman says, looking at the necklace Clara is busy stringing while the girl and her mother look over her wares.
"Thank you," says Clara.
"So, all of this is made by you then?" the girl asks.
"Most of it. These pieces over here were made by my grandmother," Clara lies. Tourists loved grandmothers. Would pay an average of three dollars extra if they thought they were buying relics of native ancestors. She guessed it made a better story. Better than the story that her grandmother had never made jewelry, had never even owned jewelry. She and her grandfather had been sheep farmers and had both died before Clara was born; he to the bottle, and she run over by a drunk driver on Highway 160.
Clara watches as the girl looks closer at the pieces Clara had just pointed out. She looks at the prices, smiles and moves away.
Budget shopper Clara sighs before stealing a look at the mother. She is holding up her cell phone, trying to find a signal. Hmmm, she could go either way.
Clara returns to her beads, listening for clues as to the best way to market to these two; that certificate for Small Business Management at Dine Community College not going to waste. The girl is a college kid, maybe just going to school, mom's trying to have this one last attempt to be a good mom, one last mother/daughter trip. Clara could see though, she is ready to be done. Ready to give her daughter away and finally get her own life back.
"Mom, look at this view," the girl says, standing at the rail, looking out into the horizon. Shiprock is far off on the horizon and between it and them are a lot of boulders, cactus and tumbleweed. Clara is just about to say, if she thinks it is amazing now, she should come back when the sun is setting the valley on fire. She almost wants to give away the secret to why she has chosen this place, how there are moments when the wind blows just right and the sun hangs just low enough that she feels she has been given a glimpse into another world. How when the moon is full and is split in two behind the silhouette of Shiprock she understands the reason her ancestors held on so tight to this land. She wants to say all of these things, but she also knows she never will. It is hers.
She doesn’t have a chance, anyway, before the mother follows her daughter's gaze. "Ugh. No wonder we gave this to the Indians. Who else would want it?"
Rage burns Clara's face hot. She bows her head to hide the fire blazing out of her eyes, but not before she is caught by the daughter. Her face is red too, not so much with rage, though Clara sees a bit of that, but more humiliation. Her eyes say sorry. Clara makes sure her own eyes say nothing.
There is a mumbled conversation but Clara can't hear it from the blood thumping in her ears. It doesn't matter. She's heard it all before, and worse. She doesn't even know why it bothers her. It is the price she paid for working Off Rez.
They stop arguing and the girl goes back to study the pieces-- this time the kachina dolls that Clara's brother made before he joined the Air Force. The mother continues to walk around with her phone in the air. Whether she's testing for a signal or performing some dance to the AT&T gods, Clara isn't sure.
"Jesus. Why can't I get any reception out here?" the mother asks.
"I don't know," Clara answers, and she no longer cares about the sale. "Maybe because you haven't given that to us Indians yet."
The air stills and they all look at each other, defying the other to respond. Clara waited for any reaction. She'd still not learned how to read some tourists past how to market their curiosity. After a moment that seemed pregnant with anticipation for Clara, the woman shrugged and walked to the car, still holding up her phone.
Now that she was gone, the daughter approached Clara. "I really am sorry about that."
"Don't worry about it. It doesn't matter."
"Yes it does."
Clara looks hard into her eyes. "No. It really doesn't."
The girl nods and bows her head. Clara goes back to her jewelry to allow the scene to shift. She will either leave immediately, hurt, or buy something--some sort of peace offering, an apology, an appeasement of familial guilt.
Moments later, the girl walked away with about three times more merchandise than Clara had estimated in her most wild of calculations.
No, Clara thought, it really never felt bad the way she and her friends put on a show for the tourists. After all, everyone has to find a way to survive with what they are given.
"J.J. I'm not saying I care where we're going, I'm saying I need to know where we're going," Thomas said, following Johnny Jr. (No Relation) who had started walking away with a shit eating grin before Thomas had finished speaking.
Thomas had driven all the way to J.J’s stables because he knew that was the first and only place he had any chance of finding him. If J.J. wasn’t there, he was out where no one could track him: in the forests, the rivers or the caverns and there was no way of knowing when he’d be back.
"You know we have this conversation every week, right?"
"Of course I know. And it seems that every week I have to remind you that if you would just, occasionally let others into your plans, let others in the decision process, then maybe, maybe I wouldn't have to keep harassing you. But no. It's gotten so I believe that you like this conversation. You like the repetition of it, the normalcy of my irritation."
"Busted. That's exactly why I don't tell you ahead of time. It has nothing to do with weather conditions, time of year in relation to sunrise and set, or the amount of guests or skill levels, all of which I don't know for sure until days before the journey begins."
"Well, you're not the only one who needs to prepare for these things. I need to make a menu, to do shopping, planning. All these things are much easier to do when I know where it is we're going and just how many people I'm cooking for."
"So, I guess that's a flaw in our plans, huh?"
"Relax, Ladies," Clara said, joining them and handing them a print out. "Don’t get your panties in a bunch. We're all set for six and they signed up for the full Walking In Beauty Package."
"Fuck," they both said.
"I thought we agreed to never do that tour again," Thomas continued.
Clara shrugged. "It pays well. Really well. Plus, I think Johnny likes getting to go all Shaman. The feathers, headdress and all that."
"But it's so..." J.J. started.
"Hippy," Thomas finished, taking meat products off the menu in his head.
"Right, hippy. I hate the smell of patchouli. And there's so much walking," J.J. whined.
"Well, it is called 'Walking in Beauty,'" Clara said. "The people want peace, they want quiet and a bit of healing and they want to pay a shit ton of money for it. Who are we to deny them that?"
"Peace and quiet I can do," J.J. said. "Of course that means we'll have to leave Spencer home. Poor guy. I promised him I'd get him out."
"Next time," Clara said. She then turned to Thomas. "So, what's on the menu?"
"Let me guess," J.J. started, "Frybread?"
Thomas laughed. "If only it weren't true. It's a requirement. It's what you put on the frybread that makes it art."
"Speaking of art, what about you, Clara?" J.J. asked.
"For hippies?" she asked.
"Dream Catchers," both men answered for her.
She smiled. "Of course."
"Look at us, thinking of our guests." Thomas put his arms around both of them.
J.J. shrugged him off first. "I got to see about some horses, and break it to Spencer."
"And I have to make sure I have enough leather," Clara said, shrugging him off too.
"Right. Well, don't worry about me," he called after them. "I'll just be over here making sure we don't starve."
Thomas had never wanted to have a career making frybread. He'd pretty much fled to culinary school, leaving the reservation for the first time, so that he would never have to make frybread again. It wasn't that he didn't like the Navajo staple; his favorite way to eat it was simply slathering it with butter and honey. It wasn't the history of frybread and why it was a staple for the Navajo that he objected to it either, though that was a sad and horrific story; aren't they all? No, it was just that frybread was boring. There were so many food choices out there, so many of them local and exciting, and though he had many, many fond memories of his grandmother and he, flour all over them, standing over a pot of hot lard, it wasn't enough to make him want to keep making it forever.
And then there was his father. To Thomas, frybread was the beginning of his problems with his father. He often wondered whether his father would have left him alone if he’d never been lured into the kitchen by his grandmother, her secrets, rituals and frybread, if his father would have left him alone. Would he have dismissed his son as a girly disappointment if he hadn’t been more fascinated with kitchen work than sports and sex.
When he got older, and his father got drunker, it went from almost harmless questions of Thomas' manhood, to malicious assumptions about Thomas' sexuality. As much as Thomas wished his father would leave him alone, he wasn't willing to give up the one thing that he loved the most, no matter how it angered his father. Thomas couldn't give up cooking. For really, he knew pretty early on, if it weren't about the cooking, his father would have found something else to use to point out Thomas' differences, his oddities.
So, Thomas found his own way to rebel. He immersed himself into the culinary arts. If he could become something with cooking, something important, then his father would have to concede, or if not that, Thomas would have to stop caring.
He excelled in all subjects in school because he knew he'd need a scholarship, and after getting his Associate Degree in Business at Dine Community College, he applied and was accepted at The Culinary Institute of America. If he hadn't meet his friends, his business partners at Dine College--first Clara in classes, then at the school's chapter of Al-Anon-- he never would have gotten the confidence, or the money to be able to go to CIA. They believed in him, as a friend and as a business asset and they sent him off to better himself and their business chances.
As he drove down the highway in his rickety truck, he thought over the menu. He liked to say that creating a menu was his favorite thing, but in actuality, almost all parts of his job was his favorite part. He loved thinking about where they were going, the landscape, the scenery, the limitations and possibilities and planning accordingly. He loved to think about the time of year and what was in season and readily available and what was overpriced and over-ripe. Finally, he loved to think about the people, the clients, to figure out what they were looking for, and give them a little bit extra, a little bit that would surprise and delight them.
After that it was the making of lists, grocery lists, prep lists and detailed to-do lists. These excited him for reasons he'd never be able to fully articulate. It was order and process and it was his. The marking of the time where it was him and what he was good at and the world disappeared. It was him and his ingredients and nothing else mattered, not the locale, not the season and certainly not the people. And that was his very favorite part. Creating. From the chopping of the cacti for the frittata, pulping the prickly pear for marmalade, toasting the pinon nuts for the pesto frybread pizza and marinating the wild mushrooms for the salad and yes, frying the goddamned bread, all along tasting and adjusting; it was his time.
He had to be in a kitchen, had to have gone away to a world famous institution off-reservation to feel the most Navajo-- the most like a man.
1 cup unbleached flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup water
Vegetable oil for frying
Sift together the flour, salt, powdered milk, and baking powder into a large bowl. Pour the water over the flour mixture all at once and stir the dough with a fork until it starts to form one big clump.
Flour your hands. Using your hands, begin to mix the dough, trying to get all the flour into the mixture to form a ball. NOTE: Do NOT knead it. Kneading it will make for a heavy Fry Bread when cooked. The inside of the dough ball should still be sticky after it is formed, while the outside will be well floured.
Cut the dough into four (4) pieces. Using your floured hands, shape, stretch, pat, and form a disk of about 5 to 7 inches in diameter.
Heat the vegetable oil to about 350 degrees F. NOTE: The hotter the oil, the faster it cooks and the less oil it absorbs.
Your oil should be about 1-inch deep in a large cast-iron skillet or other large fryer.
Take the formed dough and gently place it into the oil, being careful not to splatter the hot oil. Press down on the dough as it fries so the top is submersed into the hot oil. Fry until brown, and then flip to fry the other side. Each side will take about 3 to 4 minutes.
Fry Bread can be kept warm in a 200 degree F. oven for up to 1 hour. They refrigerate well and can be reheated in a 350 degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
In a tribe known for its storytellng, in a family notorious for the way it could spin a yarn, it took Johnny years to feel he had any talent at all. As a child he remembered his mother and he would drive to Blanding to the truck stop to pick up his father. He would have been gone for weeks, working from ranch to ranch. Johnny would watch him there in the early dawn at a booth full of men, modern day warriors bringing home, not game for food and clothing, but instead, paychecks and stories.
As Johnny remembered it, he would wordlessly and without invitation climb into his father's lap. He would think about the olden times when the men would sit around the fire and fight to be heard over the crackling timber ablaze before them and the cicadas and coyotes in the distance. They would dance with the excitement of having the attention of all, their flailing limbs casting exaggerated shadows on the boulders behind. Now they sat in booths and instead of the symphony of wildlife, there was the ding of the door chime, the crash of the till drawer and the hiss of the coffee machine. For Johnny though, his father's shadow was just as fantastical and wondrous.
Instead of tobacco, cedar, yucca and sage there is Marlboro, leather, greasy food and Budweiser as the incense Johnny associated with storytelling. As he sat there, his father's arms faintly holding him, his legs subconsciously bouncing him up and down, luring him into a secure daze, Johnny watched the smoke from the cigarettes twirl and swirl around him and imagined they were signalling to him the true meaning of the casual fabrications the men, specifically his father, told each other.
Soon he got too old to sneak onto his father's lap, when his father no longer bounced him but grunted with the attempt. It was then that Johnny started seeing the stories and the man who told them for what they were: exaggerated lies repeatedly told by drunken fools who had forgotten they had told them a million times before. Johnny never gave up the love of the story or the desire to tell his own, he just sought the knowledge somewhere else: his grandmother.
Her stories were about coyotes, foxes ravens and owls. At first he was amazed by his grandmother's imagination. When he grew up a bit, he realized she was just telling the stories that had been told to her and that he was expected to continue the tradition.
When his grandmother died while Johnny was in his early teens, he rebelled against her version of tradition. To him tradition was burying his head under pillows as his parents fought in their front yard, was finding random strangers in his mother's bed and his father passed out in a ditch along the highway, each time farther and farther away from home. Until one day, he wasn't found at all.
As his mother and he returned from the burial and sat outside their trailer, a bottle of Jack Daniels diminishing with each pass back and forth between them, it seemed to him storytelling wasn't the only tradition he would be expected to continue.
It took him into his mid 20s and a car accident that almost killed him to rebel against that tradition and to once again embrace the desire to tell stories. He very much wanted to create a life that wasn't his current reality. Part of that desire found him enrolling at Dine Community College, another part found him attending both Alcoholics Anonymous (which was a joke when everyone there knew everyone else) and Al-Anon.
It was in Al-Anon that he meet the people who would become more a family to him than he ever thought possible: fierce, cynical Clara who raged despite her best efforts to seem unaffected; who constantly shocked him with the way she could patiently pour her heart into creating delicate pieces of art that she would hold onto for only a moment before she'd force herself to detach and disconnect so as to give them away, and a piece of herself with each.
Thomas, who saw the world in flavors and textures, who sought new knowledge in food as painters seek it in hues and gradients. With knives, spoons and ladles he immersed himself, closing out the world around him and creating another in unique dishes that their customers would take the memory of with them always, but the measurements and specifics would never be duplicated to their satisfaction. They lacked the artistry and the love of ingredients--their origins and histories especially.
Then there was Johnny Jr. (no relation), the add-on nickname was formed before Johnny had really gotten to know J.J. properly. After getting to know him, he would have had no problem claiming him as his own. Even if one of the things that set J.J. apart was not how different he was, but how different he felt, how he only truly felt he belonged when he was in the land, where he had always gone when the world crowded around him with its hatefulness and its demands. It was the only place he felt he belonged, and he did. Johnny had never seen anyone love the Navajo Nation as much as J.J. It didn't matter that he wasn't from the tribe, didn't matter that the land he was devoted to didn't technically belong to him. There was no paperwork, but they all knew, the land was his.
So, when Johnny started telling stories again, he told stories about these people, this family that had landed on his lap like a gift you hadn't even realized you'd pined for until it was your birthday and there it was. Though, clinging to tradition, he took the characters of the people and infused them into animals they most resembled. Creatively clever and determined, Clara was his fox; wise and mysterious, J.J. was his owl; instinctual, devoted and playful, Thomas was his coyote. When Johnny did tell stories about himself-- exaggerated of course-- he was the transformative, truth-seeking trickster raven.
By becoming just a story, he got to make himself and his friends almost mythical, almost heroic. He got to give their lives meaning that they'd never see for themselves. The thing was, even though the stories were fantastical, as any story about animals was, they were very rarely fiction. Suddenly his life had substance and purpose. It might not have had been the Navajo tradition of storytelling, but it was his tradition. The ceremony of him.
Johnny Jr. (No Relation) stepped out of the crowded and sweaty cavern gasping for air. The pungent and sweet petrichor filled his nostrils and caused him to sigh peacefully. His spirits soared far beyond what they should, given the thoroughly grumpy clients he'd left in the cave.
Coming from climates where rain was an annoyance and not a miracle to be cherished and reveled in before it too soon became a danger, they didn't understand either J.J's euphoria or his worry. He had gotten them to the cave--the others hadn't even known it existed--right before the first drops, back when it was just a smell in the air and the beginnings of cloud cover.
J.J. sometimes wondered how he was the only one to see these things as signs. Then he remembered, no one else he knew had spent as much time as he had out here living on the land, learning from her all she had to teach. There were intimacies he alone knew because he'd taken the time and gained her confidences. He loved her much more than any person, trusted her much more than any tribe, listened to her much closer than any government.
People he didn't understand; he'd given up trying long ago. The thing though was, he didn't really need to. He'd lost everyone before he'd been old enough to miss them when they were gone. Moving from place to place, from family to family, reservation to reservation it all began to blur around the edges for him. The only thing that stayed the same was the horizon; the needles, the arches, bridges, the hoodoo monuments. Always there but also a constant reminder of what time and weather could do. What the world was capable of.
"We going to be okay?" Johnny said. J.J. hadn't even heard him come out of the cave and stand beside him.
"Oh yeah. We'll be fine," he answered before turning to look at Johnny. He tried to think Johnny looked ridiculous in the boned breast plate, the feathers in his hair and the turquoise around his throat and wrists, but he couldn't. It was pretty spectacular. But that didn't mean he couldn't give him shit for it. "Just as long as you don't go all Shaman on us and get out your Rain Dance Moccasins."
The rain had already lessened. They both stood looking down at the valley below them. The rocks and stones, usually pale pink and orange now popped with vibrant contrast of red and gold. As if the dullness had been washed away. J.J. supposed that was a good assessment. Rain had always felt like that to him as well.
"So, what brought you out here in the rain?" Johnny asked.
That was all that Johnny said and it made J.J. smile. How the man knew that to get a story out of someone, especially someone as quiet and unwilling as he was, all Johnny needed to do was silently be patient. J.J. knew this was a trick and yet he fell for it every time.
"It reminds me of Spencer. Did I ever tell you about how I found him?"
"No. You never have."
"I'll tell the story, if you want to hear it..."
"I want to hear it."
"But only on one condition."
"If I tell you this story, you have to promise me you won't use it in your repertoire. I mean, I don't really mind when you use me in a story. I like your stories. But, well..." He took a deep breath before continuing, "There are some things that happen to you, some things that belong to you that are diminished, that lose their shine with each telling. You know?"
"I do know."
"I do," Johnny said, putting his hand gently on J.J's shoulder. "And I would be honored to hear the story."
"It was about a year or so before I met you guys. I was making my annual attempt of running away. This time I had stolen a Honda Rebel 500."
"Pretty weak motorcycle."
J.J. smiled and shrugged. "You take what you can get when you're fleeing the country. Besides, at 14 there is no such thing as a weak motorcycle."
"So, I picked up the bike outside the Gas N Sip in Durango and had just gotten past Shiprock when the clouds started settling in. I knew I had some time and I knew I'd be able to find shelter in the Canyon de Chelly, so I speed up.
"It was one of those nights where the wind is warm and envelopes you, rather than pushes you around. Dusk was just settling in and I was really happy, you know?"
"I know that happy. There's not a better sort, is there?"
"Not that I've ever found. Anyway... driving along the darkening road, alone, just me, the only person in the whole world... the smell of sage, the last pinks thinning into navy blues and the pinpricks of stars peppering the sky. Can you see it? Can you smell it?"
"I can. And I thought I was a good story teller."
J.J. blushed. "Well, I had to pull over and just soak it in. And it was then, right there on the side of the road that I saw the most amazing thing. An honest to God, real and actual herd of wild horses."
"I know. You imagine that doesn't happen anymore. You imagine that was never a real thing. But there they were, running from this field to that and in between, they ran right past me. And just when I thought this wasn't real, that I had imagined it, two cops in off-road vehicles, sirens blaring through the stilled night came right behind them. That sort of broke my heart. But it was only a moment later when I saw a flash of something, one of the horses was coming back."
"Yes. I know. I was surprised to see him there alone. But there he was and he was coming right at me, dusty and matted. I don't know what I was thinking or how it even happened... but I found myself standing in front of him, watching as he reared onto his hind legs. Then there was a crack of thunder, a flash of lightning and in that moment of world-shift, the horse stilled, stood there mesmerized. That's when I got really, really insane."
"I did. Right on his back and didn't let go. It was the best moment of my entire life, riding with him. I've never been that scared, that alive and right at that moment the rain started. I didn't notice it at first, the thrill too powerful, but I did smell it. This smell. This petrichor of promise and dreams come true."
"And that's Spencer?" Johnny asked.
"That's Spencer. What can I say, I was on a classic movie kick then. Spencer Tracy was my hero there for a week or two."
"It's a good name."
"A good horse."
"And a really good story. Thank you for sharing it with me. I hope it won't diminish with the telling."
J.J. just smiled, unable to say what he thought, what he had just discovered.
Some stories are better when they were shared.
As I like to have my toes in as many social waters as possible, this post can also be found on DreamWidth. You can comment here or there...or not at all if you want to make me cry.