War Dances
by Sherman Alexie

War Dances

MY KAFKA BAGGAGE

A few years ago, after I returned home to Seattle from a trip to Los Angeles, I unpacked my bag and found a dead cockroach, shrouded by a dirty sock, in a corner. Shit, I thought. We’re being invaded. So I threw the clothes, books, shoes, and toiletries back into the suitcase, carried it out to the driveway, and dumped the contents onto the pavement, ready to stomp on any other cockroach stowaways. But there was only the one cockroach, dead and stiff. As he lay on the pavement, I leaned closer to him. His legs were curled under his body. His head was tilted at a sad angle. Sad? Yes, sad. For who is lonelier than the cockroach without his tribe? I laughed at myself. I was feeling empathy for a dead cockroach. I wondered about its story. How had it got into my bag? And where? At the hotel in Los Angeles? In the airport baggage system? It hadn’t originated in our house. We’ve kept those tiny bastards from our place for fifteen years. So where had this little vermin come from? Had he smelled something delicious in my bag—my musky deodorant or some crumb from a chocolate Power Bar—and climbed inside, only to be crushed by the shifts of fate and garment bags? As he died, did he feel fear? Isolation? Existential dread?

SYMPTOMS

Last summer, in reaction to various allergies I was suffering from, defensive mucus flooded my inner right ear and confused, frightened, and unmoored me. My allergies had never been this severe. I could barely hear a fucking thing with that side, so I had to turn my head in order to understand what my two sons, ages eight and ten, were saying.

“We’re hungry,” they said. “We keep telling you.”

I was embarrassed.

“Mom would have fed us by now,” they said.

Their mother had left for Italy with her mother two days before. My sons and I were going to enjoy a boys’ week, filled with unwashed socks, REI rock-wall climbing, and ridiculous heaps of pasta.

“What are you going to cook?” my sons asked. “Why haven’t you cooked yet?”

I’d been lying on the couch reading a book while they played and I hadn’t realized that I’d gone partially deaf. So, for just a moment, I could only weakly blame my allergies.

Then I recalled the man who went to the emergency room because he’d woken having lost most, if not all, of his hearing. The doctor peered into one ear, saw an obstruction, reached in with small tweezers, and pulled out a cockroach, then reached into the other ear and extracted a much larger cockroach. Did you know that ear wax is a delicacy for roaches?

I cooked dinner for my sons—overfed them out of guilt—and cleaned the hell out of our home. Then I walked into the bathroom and stood before the mirror. I turned my head and body at weird angles and tried to see deeply into my congested ear; I sang hymns and prayed that I’d see a small angel trapped in the canal. I would free the poor thing, and she’d unfurl and pat dry her tiny wings, then fly to my lips and give me a sweet kiss for sheltering her metamorphosis.

When I woke at 3 A.M., completely deaf in my right ear, and positive that a damn swarm of locusts was wedged inside, I left a message for my doctor, and told him that I would be sitting outside his office when he reported for work.

This would be the first time I had been inside a health-care facility since my father’s last surgery.

BLANKETS

After the surgeon had cut off my father’s right foot—no, half of my father’s right foot—and three toes from the left, I sat with him in the recovery room. It was more like a recovery hallway. There was no privacy, not even a thin curtain. I supposed this made it easier for the nurses to monitor the post-surgical patients, but, still, my father was exposed—his decades of poor health and worse decisions were illuminated—on white sheets in a white hallway under white lights.

“Are you O.K.?” I asked. It was a stupid question. Who could be O.K. after such a thing? Yesterday, my father had walked into the hospital. Yes, he’d shuffled while balancing on two canes, but that was still called walking. A few hours ago, my father still had both of his feet. They were black with rot and disease, but they were still, technically speaking, feet and toes. And, most important, those feet had belonged to my father. Now they were gone, sliced off. Where were they? What had the hospital done with the right foot and the toes from the left foot? Had they been thrown into the incinerator? Were their ashes already floating over the city?

“Doctor, I’m cold,” my father said.

“Dad, it’s me,” I said.

“I know who you are. You’re my son.” But, given the blankness in my father’s eyes, I assumed he was just guessing.

“Dad, you’re in the hospital. You just had surgery.”

“I know where I am. I’m cold.”

“Do you want another blanket?” Stupid question. Of course, he wanted another blanket. He probably wanted me to build a fucking campfire or drag in one of those giant heat blasters that N.F.L. football teams use on the sidelines.

I walked down the hallway—the recovery hallway—to the nurses’ station. There were three women nurses there, two white and one black. I am Native American—Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian—and I thought my darker pigment might give me an edge with the black nurse, so I addressed her directly.

“My father is cold,” I said. “Can I get another blanket?”

The nurse glanced up from her paperwork and regarded me. Her expression was neither compassionate nor callous.

“How can I help you, sir?” she asked.

“I’d like another blanket for my father. He’s cold.”

“I’ll be with you in a moment, sir.”

She looked back down at her paperwork. She made a few notes. Not knowing what else to do, I stood there and waited.

“Sir,” the nurse said. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

She was irritated. I understood. After all, how many thousands of times had she been asked for an extra blanket? She was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper. And it was never really about an extra blanket, was it? No, when people asked for an extra blanket they were asking for a time machine. My father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So that he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? Yes, she was a health-care worker and she didn’t want to be cruel, but she believed that there came a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn’t disagree with her, but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn’t I?

“My father,” I said. “An extra blanket, please.”

“Fine,” she said. She got up and walked back to a linen closet, grabbed a white blanket, and handed it to me. “If you need anything else—”

I didn’t wait around for the end of her sentence. With the blanket in hand, I walked back to my father. It was a thin blanket, laundered and sterilized a hundred times. In fact, it was too thin. It wasn’t really a blanket. It was more like a large beach towel. Hell, it wasn’t even good enough for that. It was more like the world’s biggest coffee filter. Jesus, had health care finally come to this? Everybody was uninsured and unblanketed.

“Dad, I’m back.”

He looked so small and pale lying in that hospital bed. How had this happened? For the first sixty-seven years of his life, my father had been a large and dark man. Now he was just another pale, sick drone in a hallway of pale, sick drones. A hive, I thought. This place is like a beehive with colony-collapse disorder.

“Dad, it’s me.”

“I’m cold.”

“I have a blanket.”

As I draped it over my father and tucked it around his body, I felt the first sting of grief. I’d read the hospital literature about this moment. There would come a time when roles would reverse and the adult child would become the caretaker of the ill parent. The circle of life. Such poetic bullshit.

“I can’t get warm,” my father said. “I’m freezing.”

“I brought you a blanket, Dad. I put it on you.”

“Get me another one. Please. I’m so cold. I need another blanket.”

I knew that ten more of these cheap blankets wouldn’t be enough. My father needed a real blanket, a good blanket.

I walked out of the recovery hallway and made my way through various doorways and other hallways, peering into rooms, looking at the patients and their families, searching for a particular kind of patient and family.

I walked through the E.R., through the cancer, heart and vascular, neuroscience, orthopedic, women’s health, pediatric, and surgical wards. Nobody stopped me. My expression and posture were those of a man with a sick father, and so I belonged.

And then I saw him, another Native man, leaning against a wall near the gift shop. Well, maybe he was Asian—lots of those in Seattle. He was a small man, pale brown, with muscular arms and a soft belly. Maybe he was Mexican, which is really a kind of Indian, too, but not the kind that I needed. It’s hard to tell sometimes what people are. Even brown people guess at the identity of other brown people.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” the other man said.

“You Indian?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“What tribe?”

“Lummi.”

“I’m Spokane.”

“My first wife was Spokane. I hated her.”

“My first wife was Lummi. She hated me.”

We laughed at the new jokes that instantly sounded old.

“Why are you in here?” I asked.

“My sister is having a baby,” he said. “But don’t worry, it’s not mine.”

“Ayyyyyy,” I said and laughed.

“I don’t even want to be here,” the other Indian said. “But my dad started, like, this new Indian tradition. He says it’s a thousand years old. But that’s bullshit. He just made it up to impress himself. And the whole family goes along with it, even when we know it’s bullshit. He’s in the delivery room waving eagle feathers around. Jesus.”

“What’s the tradition?”

“Oh, he does a naming ceremony right in the hospital. It’s supposed to protect the baby from all the technology and shit. Like hospitals are the big problem. You know how many babies died before we had good hospitals?”

“I don’t know.”

“Most of them. Well, shit, a lot of them, at least.”

This guy was talking out of his ass. I liked him immediately.

“I mean,” the guy said. “You should see my dad right now. He’s pretending to go into this, like, fucking trance, dancing around my sister in the bed, and he says he’s trying to, you know, see into her womb, to see who the baby is, to see its true nature, so he can give it a name—a protective name—before it’s born.”

The guy laughed and threw his head back, banging it on the wall.

“I mean, come on, I’m a loser,” he said and rubbed his sore skull. “My whole family is filled with losers.”

The Indian world is filled with charlatans, men and women who pretend—hell, who might have come to believe—that they are holy. The year before, I went to a lecture at the University of Washington. An elderly Indian woman, a scholar, had come to orate on Indian sovereignty and literature. She kept arguing for some kind of separate indigenous literary identity, which was ironic considering that she was speaking English to a room full of white professors. But I wasn’t angry with the woman, or even bored. No, I felt sorry for her. I realized that she was dying of nostalgia. She had taken nostalgia as her false idol—her thin blanket—and it was murdering her.

“Nostalgia,” I said.

“What?”

“Your dad, he sounds like he’s got a bad case of nostalgia.”

“Yeah, I hear you catch that from fucking old high-school girlfriends,” the man said. “What the hell you doing here, anyway?”

“My dad just got his feet cut off,” I said.

“Diabetes?”

“And vodka.”

“Vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser?”

“Both.”

“Natural causes for an Indian.”

“Yep.”

There wasn’t much to say after that.

“Well, I better get back,” the man said. “Otherwise, my dad might wave an eagle feather and change my name.”

“Hey, wait,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask you a favor?”

“What?”

“My dad, he’s in the recovery room,” I said. “Well, it’s more like a hallway, and he’s freezing, and they’ve only got these shitty little blankets, and I came looking for Indians in the hospital because I figured—well, I guessed if I found any Indians they might have some good blankets.”

“So you want to borrow a blanket from us?” the man asked.

“Yeah.”

“Because you thought Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s fucking ridiculous.”

“I know.”

“And it’s racist.”

“I know.”

“You’re stereotyping your own damn people.”

“I know.”

“But damn if we don’t have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones. Jesus, you’d think my sister was having, like, a dozen babies.”

Five minutes later, carrying a Pendleton Star blanket, the Indian man walked out of his sister’s hospital room, accompanied by his father, who wore Levi’s, a black T-shirt, and eagle feathers in his gray braids.

“We want to give your father this blanket,” the old man said. “It was meant for my grandson, but I think it will be good for your father, too.”

“Thank you.”

“Let me bless it. I will sing a healing song for the blanket. And for your father.”

I flinched. This old man wanted to sing a song? That was dangerous. The song could take two minutes or two hours. It was impossible to know. Hell, considering how desperate the old man was to be seen as holy, he might sing for a week. I couldn’t let him begin his song without issuing a caveat.

“My dad,” I said. “I really need to get back to him. He’s really sick.”

“Don’t worry,” the old man said, winking. “I’ll sing one of my short ones.”

Jesus, who’d ever heard of a self-aware fundamentalist? The son, perhaps not the unbeliever he’d pretended to be, sang backup as his father launched into a radio-friendly honor song, just three and a half minutes, like any Top Forty rock song of the past fifty years. But here’s the funny thing: the old man couldn’t sing very well. If you had the balls to sing healing songs in hospital hallways, then you should have a great voice, right? But, no, this guy couldn’t keep the tune; his voice cracked and wavered. Does a holy song lose its power if the singer is untalented?

“That is your father’s song,” the old man said when he finished. “I give it to him. I will never sing it again. It belongs to your father now.”

Behind his back, the old man’s son rolled his eyes and walked into his sister’s room.

“O.K., thank you,” I said. I felt like an ass, accepting the blanket and the old man’s good wishes, and silently mocking them at the same time. But maybe the old man did have some power, some real medicine, because he peeked into my brain.

“It doesn’t matter if you believe in the healing song,” he said. “It only matters that the blanket heard.”

“Where have you been?” my father asked when I returned. “I’m cold.”

“I know, I know,” I said. “I found you a blanket. A good one. It will keep you warm.”

I draped the Star blanket over my father. He pulled the thick wool up to his chin. And then he began to sing. It was a healing song, not the same song that I had just heard but a healing song nonetheless. My father could sing beautifully. I wondered if it was proper for a man to sing a healing song for himself. I wondered if my father needed help with the song. I hadn’t sung for many years, not like that, but I joined him. I knew that this song would not bring back my father’s feet. This song would not repair my father’s bladder, kidneys, lungs, and heart. This song would not prevent my father from drinking a bottle of vodka as soon as he could sit up in bed. This song would not defeat death. No, I thought, this song is temporary, but right now temporary is good enough. And it was a good song. Our voices filled the recovery hallway. The sick and the healthy stopped to listen. The nurses, even the remote black one, unconsciously took a few steps toward us. She sighed and smiled. I smiled back. I knew what she was thinking. Sometimes, even after all these years, she could still be surprised by her work. She still marvelled at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people.

DOCTOR’S OFFICE

I took my kids with me to my doctor, a handsome man—a reservist—who’d served in both Iraq wars. I told him that I couldn’t hear because of my allergies. He said he would likely have to clear wax and mucus out of my ear, but when he scoped inside he discovered nothing.

“Nope, it’s all dry in there,” he said.

He led my sons and me to the audiologist in the other half of the building. I was scared, but I wanted my children to remain calm, so I tried to stay measured. More than anything, I wanted my wife to materialize.

During the hearing test, I heard only thirty per cent of the clicks, bells, and words—I apparently had nerve- and bone-conductive deafness. My inner ear thumped and thumped.

How many cockroaches were in my head?

My doctor said, “We need an MRI of your ear and brain, and maybe we’ll find out what’s going on.”

“Maybe”? That word terrified me.

What the fuck was wrong with my fucking head? Had my hydrocephalus come back? Had my levees burst? Was I going to flood?