War Dances
by Sherman Alexie


In Bartell Drugs, I gave the pharmacist my prescription for prednisone.

“Is this your first fill with us?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “And it won’t be my last.”

I felt like an ass, but she looked bored.

“It’ll take thirty minutes,” she said. “More or less. We’ll page you over the speakers.”

I don’t think I’d ever felt weaker. Or more vulnerable. Or more absurd. I was the weak antelope in the herd—yeah, the mangy fucker with the big limp and a sign that read, “Eat Me! I’m a Gimp!”

So for thirty minutes I walked the store and found myself shoving more and more useful shit into my shopping basket, as if I were filling my casket with things I’d need in the afterlife. I grabbed toothpaste, a Swiss Army knife, moisturizer, mouthwash, nonstick Band-Aids, antacid, protein bars, and extra razor blades. I grabbed pen and paper. And I also grabbed an ice scraper and sunscreen. Who can predict what kind of weather awaits us in Heaven?

This random shopping made me feel better for a few minutes, but then I stopped and walked to the toy aisle. My boys needed gifts, Lego cars or something, for a lift, a shot of capitalist joy. But the selection of proper toys is both an art and a science. I have been wrong as often as right and have heard the sad song of a disappointed son.

Shit, I knew that if I died my sons would survive, even thrive, because of their graceful mother.

I thought of my father’s life. He had been just six when his father was killed in the Second World War. Then his mother, ill with tuberculosis, had died a few months later. Six years old and my father was cratered. In most ways, he never stopped being six. There was no religion, no magic, and no song or dance that could have helped my father.

I needed a drink of water, so I found the fountain and drank and drank until the pharmacist called my name.

“Have you taken these before?” she asked.

I said, “No, but they’re going to kick my ass, aren’t they?”

That made the pharmacist smile, so I felt sadly and briefly worthwhile. But another customer, some nosy hag, said, “You’ve got a lot of sleepless nights ahead of you.”

I was shocked. I stammered, glared at her, and said, “Miss, how is this any of your business? Please, just fuck all the way off, O.K.?”

She had no idea what to say, so she just turned and walked away, and I pulled out my credit card and paid far too much for my goddam steroids, and forgot to bring the toys home to my boys.


· True or False: When a reservation-raised Native American dies of alcoholism, it should be considered death by natural causes.

· Do you understand the term “wanderlust,” and, if you do, can you please tell us, in twenty-five words or less, what place made you wanderlust the most?

· Did you, when drunk, ever get behind the tattered wheel of a ’76 Ford three-speed van and somehow drive your family a thousand miles on an empty tank of gas?

· Is it true that the only literary term that has any real meaning in the Native American world is “road movie”?

· How many times, during any of your road trips, did your children ask you, “Are we there yet?”

· In twenty-five words or less, please define “there.”

· Sir, in your thirty-nine years as a parent you broke your children’s hearts, collectively and individually, six hundred and twelve times, and you did this without ever striking any human being in anger. Does this absence of physical violence make you a better man than you might otherwise have been?

· Without using the words “man” or “good,” can you please define what it means to be a good man?

· Do you think you will see angels before you die? Do you think angels will come to escort you to Heaven? As the angels are carrying you to Heaven, how many times will you ask, “Are we there yet?”

· Your son distinctly remembers stopping once or twice a month at that grocery store in Freeman, Washington, where you would buy him a red-white-and-blue rocket Popsicle and purchase for yourself a pickled pig foot. Your son distinctly remembers that the feet still had their toenails and little tufts of pig fur. Could this be true? Did you actually eat such horrendous food?

· Your son has often made the joke that you were the only Indian of your generation who went to Catholic school on purpose. This is, of course, a tasteless joke that makes light of the forced incarceration and subsequent physical, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of Native American children in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools. In consideration of your son’s questionable judgment in telling jokes, do you think there should be any moral limits placed on comedy?

· Your other son and your two daughters, all over thirty-six years of age, still live in your house. Do you think that this is a lovely expression of tribal culture? Or is it a symptom of extreme familial co-dependency? Or is it both things at the same time?

· F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.” Do you believe this to be true? And is it also true that you once said, “The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut”?

· A poet once wrote, “Pain is never added to pain. It multiplies.” Can you tell us, in twenty-five words or less, exactly how much we all hate mathematical blackmail?

· Your son wrote this poem to explain one of the most significant nights in his life:

Mutually Assured Destruction
When I was nine, my father sliced his knee
With a chainsaw. But he let himself bleed
And finished cutting down one more tree
Before his boss drove him TO EMERGENCY.
Late that night, stoned on morphine and beer,
My father needed my help to steer
His pickup into the woods. “Watch for deer,”
My father said. “Those things just appear
Like magic.” It was an Indian summer
And we drove through warm rain and thunder,
Until we found that chainsaw, lying under
The fallen pine. Then I watched, with wonder,
As my father, shotgun-rich and impulse-poor,
Blasted that chainsaw dead. “What was that for?”
I asked. “Son,” my father said. “Here’s the score.
Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”
· Well, first of all, as you know, you did cut your knee with a chainsaw, but in direct contradiction to your son’s poem:

(a) You immediately went to the emergency room.

(b) Your boss called your wife, who drove you to the emergency room.

(c) You were given morphine, but even you were not stupid enough to drink alcohol while on serious narcotics.

(d) You and your son did not get into the pickup that night.

(e) And, even if you had driven the pickup, you were not injured seriously enough to need your son’s help with the pedals and/or the steering wheel.

(f) You never in your life used the word “appear,” and you certainly never used the phrase “like magic.”

(g) You think that “Indian summer” is a questionable seasonal reference for an Indian poet to use.

(h) What the fuck is “warm rain and thunder”? Well, everybody knows what “warm rain” is, but what the fuck is “warm thunder”?

(i) You never went looking for that chainsaw, because it belonged to the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and what kind of freak would want to reclaim the chainsaw that had just cut the shit out of his knee?

(j) You also agree that the entire third stanza of this poem sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song, and not necessarily one of the great ones.

(k) And yet “shotgun-rich and impulse-poor” is one of the greatest descriptions your son has ever written and probably redeems the entire poem.

(l) You never owned a shotgun. You did own a few rifles in your youth, but did not own so much as a pellet gun during the last thirty years of your life.

(m) You never said, in any context, “Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”

(n) But, as you read it, you know that is absolutely true and does indeed sound suspiciously like your entire life philosophy.

(o) Other summations of your life philosophy include: “It’s all wasted days and wasted nights.”

(p) And: “If God really loved Indians, he would have made us white people.”

(q) And: “Oscar Robertson should be the man on the N.B.A. logo. They only put Jerry West on there because he’s a white guy.”

(r) And: “A peanut-butter sandwich with onions—damn, that’s the way to go.”

(s) And: “Why eat a pomegranate when you can eat a plain old apple. Or a carrot. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, eat only the simple stuff.”

(t) And: “If you really want a woman to love you, then you have to dance. And if you don’t want to dance, then you’re going to have to work extra hard to make a woman love you forever, and you will always run the risk that she will leave you at any second for a man who knows how to tango.”

(u) And: “I really miss those cafeterias they used to have at Kmart. I don’t know why they stopped having those. If there is a Heaven, I firmly believe it’s a Kmart cafeteria.”

(v) And: “A father always knows what his sons are doing. For instance, boys, I knew you were sneaking that Hustler magazine out of my bedroom. You remember that one. Where actors who looked like Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura were screwing on the bridge of the Enterprise. Yeah, that one. I know you kept borrowing it. I let you borrow it. Remember this: men and pornography are like plants and sunshine. To me, porn is photosynthesis.”

(w) And: “Your mother is a better man than me. Mothers are almost always better men than men are.”


After she returned from Italy, my wife climbed into bed with me. I felt as if I hadn’t slept comfortably in years.

I said, “There was a rumor that I’d grown a tumor, but I killed it with humor.”

“How long have you been waiting to tell me that one?” she asked.

“Oh, probably since the first time some doctor put his fingers in my brain.”

We made love. We fell asleep. But, agitated by the steroids, I woke at 2, 3, 4, and 5 A.M. The bed was killing my back, so I lay flat on the floor. I wasn’t going to die anytime soon, at least not because of my little friend Tumor, but that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable or comforted. I felt distant from the world—from my wife and my sons, from my mother and my siblings, from all my friends. I felt closest to those who’d always had fingers in their brains.

I didn’t feel any closer to the world six months later, when another MRI revealed that my meningioma had not grown in size or changed its shape.

“You’re looking good,” my doctor said. “How’s your hearing?”

“I think I’ve got about ninety per cent of it back.”

“Well, then, the steroids worked. Good.”

And I didn’t feel any more intimate with the world nine months after that, when one more MRI made my doctor hypothesize that my meningioma might only be more scar tissue from the hydrocephalus.

“Frankly,” he said, “your brain is beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said, though it was the oddest compliment I’d ever received.

I wanted to call my father and tell him that a white man thought my brain was beautiful. But I couldn’t tell him anything. He was dead. I told my wife and my sons that I was O.K. I told my mother and my siblings. I told my friends. But none of them laughed as hard about my beautiful brain as I knew my father—the drunk bastard—would have. ♦