The Toughest Indian in the Worldby Sherman Alexie
“Alexie reveals himself to be a more fearless writer than one might ever have imagined; the stories are bold, uncensored, raucous, and sexy.” –Ken Foster, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Now available in paperback, Sherman Alexie’s national best-seller, in which “Alexie reveals himself to be a more fearless writer than one might ever have imagined; the stories are bold, uncensored, raucous, and sexy” (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review)
A beloved American writer whose books are championed by critics and readers alike, Sherman Alexie has been hailed by Time as “one of the better new novelists, Indian or otherwise.” Now his acclaimed new collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, which received universal praise in hardcover, is available in paperback.
In these stories, we meet the kind of American Indians we rarely see in literature–the kind who pay their bills, hold down jobs, fall in and out of love. A Spokane Indian journalist transplanted from the reservation to the city picks up a hitchhiker, a Lummi boxer looking to take on the toughest Indian in the world. A Spokane son waits for his diabetic father to come home from the hospital, tossing out the Hershey Kisses the father has hidden all over the house. An estranged interracial couple, separated in the midst of a traffic accident, rediscover their love for each other. A white drifter holds up an International House of Pancakes, demanding a dollar per customer and someone to love, and emerges with $42 and an overweight Indian he dubs Salmon Boy. Sherman Alexie’s voice is one of remarkable passion, and these stories are love stories–between parents and children, white people and Indians, movie stars and ordinary people. Witty, tender, and fierce, The Toughest Indian in the World is a virtuoso performance by one of the country’s finest writers.
“Alexie at his most inventive and heart-rending.” –Carolyn Alessio, Chicago Tribune
“Lyrical, rebellious, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking . . . Alexie is one of the best American writers of any color today.” –Ron Franscell, The Denver Post
“Alexie reveals himself to be a more fearless writer than one might ever have imagined; the stories are bold, uncensored, raucous, and sexy.” –Ken Foster, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Stunning . . . Alexie’s prose contains the reverberations and human noise of the best Raymond Carver stories. . . . Although Alexie’s stories may taste like grief, they read like heaven.” –Mark Luce, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental, rebellious postmodern voice set beside his elder . . . contemporaries. . . . Alexie is the bad boy among them, mocking, self-mocking, unpredictable, unassimilable, reminding us of the young Philip Roth.” –Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books
“What is an Indian? It’s too much for one person, even Sherman Alexie, to answer that question–it’s too much for one book. But we can look to Alexie and his prodigious imagination to give us the jokers, the geniuses, the Seattleites and reservation dwellers–all the Indians he so able creates in The Toughest Indian in the World.” –The Seattle Times
“The America of Alexie, which he has people so well in his novels, poetry and stories, is full of Indians and white people and all the admixtures that our Cherokee-Chinese-Choctaw-Seminole-Semitic-Irish-Russian hyphenated coun-try can stand. . . . The genius of Alexie’s writing is his ability to wrap language and image around the root of this anger and pain, by recognizing it as the human need for love. . . . Optimism, in fact, is Alexie’s strong suit, the American beauty that seduces all his heroes.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A collection of nine short stories in which the Indians, not the cowboys, usually get the last laugh. . . . Angry, funny, and true.” –USA Today
“Stunning . . . [Alexie] definitely writes some of the toughest prose around . . . muscular, unencumbered language that can deliver a shock like a good, hard punch . . . consistently surprising us with stories that are neither sentimental nor angry but far more emotionally complex.” –Library Journal (starred review)
“An eloquent stylist, often heightening reality as he ennobles language . . . A widely honored writer possessed of grand material.” –The Washington Post Book World
“Powerful and vivid, darkly humorous and magically surreal.” –New York Daily News
“One of the finest practitioners of the English language . . . Alexie ventures into new territory with this book [of] emotionally resonant stories.” –Tin House
“Alexie provides his usual combination of provocative politics, dark humor, rich characters, and sharp dialogue. And he manages all this while engaging in a fascinating investigation of what love means to a people in search of itself. . . . The great strength of Alexie’s writing is that, while incredibly sharp and inventive, it never calls attention to itself.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“His prose is haunting . . . he’s the real deal: a master stylist, a born storyteller, as well as a writer of inspired formal innovations and experiments. Alexie . . . is here to stay.” –Seattle Weekly
“Very fine . . . Lyrical, touching, funny, and soulful, the tales here are love stories of a mostly unconventional kind. . . . One could ask nothing more of any fiction.” –The Baltimore Sun
“Compelling . . . Alexie’s characters are complex and his eye is sharp. . . . Transforming [and] darkly comic . . . Alexie . . . [delivers] bracing observations about identity, about insiders and outsiders–in tribes, in marriages, in death–and how the two groups wittingly and unwittingly keep trading places.” –The Boston Globe
“A complex and layered volume with the resonance and depth of a crazy-quilt novel . . . Fiercely compassionate and compellingly human, The Toughest Indian in the World is Alexie at his finest.” –The New York Post
“Alexie’s prose is littered with . . . startling metaphors–communicated through spare, accessible, and often darkly humorous language. . . . For each of Alexie’s characters, toughness seems to be a mixture of circumstance, tenacity, humor, and resignation. . . . . You may find yourself simultaneously laughing out loud and cringing while reading the collection.” –Shannon Gibney, Minnesota Spokesman-Reporter
“Funny, bittersweet, touching, and angry . . . [stories] about love and pride and shame.” –Nashville Tennessean
“This new collection’s strengths, which are many, include peculiar deadpan wit and sharp lyricism, as well as a fresh, often challenging perspective on American culture. . . . Exquisite.” –Austin Chronicle
“In each of these stories Alexie directs a sure eye and an examined heart toward the problem of not knowing one’s place in the world . . . as good a writer as they come.” –Houston Chronicle
“Alexie writes, primarily, about accepting change in its various guises. In these stories, characters from varied backgrounds investigate their Indian and non-Indian identities in the context of family, intercultural conflict, love, death, car wrecks, Hollywood cowboys, and basketball.” –Maureen Salzer, North Dakota Quarterly
“Thrilling lines and voices that stick in your head long after you’ve set down the book . . . Alexie plays constantly with the reader’s expectations, his rebellious spirit showing through his characters’ actions. . . . He describes the world with which we’re familiar and then twists that world until we laugh or shudder.” –Crosswinds Weekly (New Mexico)
“The best of [these stories] deal with issues pertaining to the contemporary male in late-capitalist society. Most are written with a post-land claims sensibility in mind. . . . You will recognize shades of Raymond Carver in the opening story, “Assimilation,” or of Kurt Vonnegut in ‘south by Southwest.”” –The National Post (Toronto)
‘sherman Alexie defined expectations from his very first breath. Now he does it for the American literary world and, increasingly, the American public as well.” –Book Magazine
“One of modern literature’s most talented and committed newcomers . . . His is the kind of writing that reveals human layers in a remarkable and realistic way, instantaneously exposing facets both deeply sad and uproariously funny. . . . The Toughest Indian in the World is so deftly human in tone that you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with his targets.” –Westword (Colorado)
“A lyric voice shot through with dark humor and magic . . . What Alexie is writing here are love stories–between husbands and wives, betweens sons and fathers, between men–and he writes with passion and jagged poetic sensibility.” –The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Good enough to stand along the best stories by contemporary masters of the form, including Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver . . . In addition to high energy, compassion, and a blinding sense of humor, what Alexie brings not only to contemporary Native American literature but also to contemporary American literature in general is a stunning ability to reverse stereotypes. . . . As his new book reminds us, Alexie’s independence, inventiveness, and creative gifts are, indeed, prodigious.” –Bloomsbury Review
A Book Sense 76 Selection
Chapter One: ASSIMILATION
Regarding love, marriage, and sex, both Shakespeare and Sitting Bull knew the only truth: treaties get broken. Therefore, Mary Lynn wanted to have sex with any man other than her husband. For the first time in her life, she wanted to go to bed with an Indian man only because he was Indian. She was a Coeur d’Alene Indian married to a white man; she was a wife who wanted to have sex with an indigenous stranger. She didn’t care about the stranger’s job or his hobbies, or whether he was due for a Cost of Living raise, or owned ten thousand miles of model railroad track. She didn’t care if he was handsome or ugly, mostly because she wasn’t sure exactly what those terms meant anymore and how much relevance they truly had when it came to choosing sexual partners. Oh, she’d married a very handsome man, there was no doubt about that, and she was still attracted to her husband, to his long, graceful fingers, to his arrogance and utter lack of fear in social situations–he’d say anything to anybody–but lately, she’d been forced to concentrate too hard when making love to him. If she didn’t focus completely on him, on the smallest details of his body, then she would drift away from the bed and float around the room like a bored angel. Of course, all this made her feel like a failure, especially since it seemed that her husband had yet to notice her growing disinterest. She wanted to be a good lover, wife, and partner, but she’d obviously developed some form of sexual dyslexia or had picked up a mutant, contagious, and erotic strain of Attention Deficit Disorder. She felt baffled by the complications of sex. She haunted the aisles of bookstores and desperately paged through every book in the self-help section and studied every diagram and chart in the human sensuality encyclopedias. She wanted answers. She wanted to feel it again, whatever it was.
A few summers ago, during Crow Fair, Mary Lynn had been standing in a Montana supermarket, in the produce aisle, when a homely white woman, her spiky blond hair still wet from a trailer-house shower, walked by in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, and though Mary Lynn was straight–having politely declined all three lesbian overtures thrown at her in her life–she’d felt a warm breeze pass through her DNA in that ugly woman’s wake, and had briefly wanted to knock her to the linoleum and do beautiful things to her. Mary Lynn had never before felt such lust–in Montana, of all places, for a white woman who was functionally illiterate and underemployed!–and had not since felt that sensually about any other woman or man.
Who could explain such things, these vagaries of love? There were many people who would blame Mary Lynn’s unhappiness, her dissatisfaction, on her ethnicity. God, she thought, how simple and earnest was that particular bit of psychotherapy! Yes, she was most certainly a Coeur d’Alene–she’d grown up on the rez, had been very happy during her time there, and had left without serious regrets or full-time enemies–but that wasn’t the only way to define her. She wished that she could be called Coeur d’Alene as a description, rather than as an excuse, reasons, prescription, placebo, prediction, or diminutive. She only wanted to be understood as eccentric and complicated!
Her most cherished eccentricity: when she was feeling her most lonely, she’d put one of the Big Mom Singers’s powwow CDs on the stereo (I’m not afraid of death, hey, ya, hey, death is my cousin, hey, ya, ha, ha) and read from Emily Dickinson’s poetry (Because I could not stop for Death–/ He kindly stopped for me–).
Her most important complication: she was a woman in a turbulent marriage that was threatening to go bad, or had gone bad and might get worse.
Yes, she was a Coeur d’Alene woman, passionately and dispassionately, who wanted to cheat on her white husband because he was white. She wanted to find an anonymous lover, an Indian man who would fade away into the crowd when she was done with him, a man whose face could appear on the back of her milk carton. She didn’t care if he was the kind of man who knew the punch lines to everybody’s dirty jokes, or if he was the kind of man who read Zane Grey before he went to sleep, or if he was both of those men simultaneously. She simply wanted to find the darkest Indian in Seattle–the man with the greatest amount of melanin–and get naked with him in a cheap motel room. Therefore, she walked up to a flabby Lummi Indian man in a coffee shop and asked him to make love to her.
“Now,” she said. “Before I change my mind.”
He hesitated for a brief moment, wondering why he was the chosen one, and then took her by the hand. He decided to believe he was a handsome man.
“Don’t you want to know my name?” he asked before she put her hand over his mouth.
“Don’t talk to me,” she said. “Don’t say one word. Just take me to the closest motel and fuck me.”
The obscenity bothered her. It felt staged, forced, as if she were an actress in a three-in-the-morning cable-television movie. But she was acting, wasn’t she? She was not an adulteress, was she?
Why exactly did she want to have sex with an Indian stranger? She told herself it was because of pessimism, existentialism, even nihilism, but those reasons–those words–were a function of her vocabulary and not of her motivations. If forced to admit the truth, or some version of the truth, she’d testify she was about to go to bed with an Indian stranger because she wanted to know how it would feel. After all, she’d slept with a white stranger in her life, so why not include a Native American? Why not practice a carnal form of affirmative action? By God, her infidelity was a political act! Rebellion, resistance, revolution!
In the motel room, Mary Lynn made the Indian take off his clothes first. Thirty pounds overweight, with purple scars crisscrossing his pale chest and belly, he trembled as he undressed. He wore a wedding ring on his right hand. She knew that some Europeans wore their wedding bands on the right hand–so maybe this Indian was married to a French woman–but Mary Lynn also knew that some divorced Americans wore rings on their right hands as symbols of pain, of mourning. Mary Lynn didn’t care if he was married or not, or whether he shared custody of the sons and daughters, or whether he had any children at all. She was grateful that he was plain and desperate and lonely.
Mary Lynn stepped close to him, took his hand, and slid his thumb into her mouth. She sucked on it and felt ridiculous. His skin was salty and oily, the taste of a working man. She closed her eyes and thought about her husband, a professional who had his shirts laundered. In one hour, he was going to meet her at a new downtown restaurant.
She walked a slow, tight circle around the Indian. She stood behind him, reached around his thick waist, and held his erect penis. He moaned and she decided that she hated him. She decided to hate all men. Hate, hate, hate, she thought, and then let her hate go.
She was lovely and intelligent, and had grown up with Indian women who were more lovely and more intelligent, but who also had far less ambition and mendacity. She’d once read in a book, perhaps by Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, that the survivors of the Nazi death camps were the Jews who lied, cheated, murdered, stole, and subverted. You must remember, said Levi or Wiesel, that the best of us did not survive the camps. Mary Lynn felt the same way about the reservation. Before she’d turned ten, she’d attended the funerals of seventeen good women–the best of the Coeur d’Alenes–and had read about the deaths of eighteen more good women since she’d left the rez. But what about the Coeur d’Alene men–those liars, cheats, and thieves–who’d survived, even thrived? Mary Lynn wanted nothing to do with them, then or now. As a teenager, she’d dated only white boys. As an adult, she’d only dated white men. God, she hated to admit it, but white men–her teachers, coaches, bosses, and lovers–had always been more dependable than the Indian men in her life. White men had rarely disappointed her, but they’d never surprised her either. White men were neutral, she thought, just like Belgium! And when has Belgium ever been sexy? When has Belgium caused a grown woman to shake with fear and guilt? She didn’t want to feel Belgian; she wanted to feel dangerous.
In the cheap motel room, Mary Lynn breathed deeply. The Indian smelled of old sweat and a shirt worn twice before washing. She ran her finger along the ugly scars on his belly and chest. She wanted to know the scars’ creation story–she hoped this Indian man was a warrior with a history of knife fighting–but she feared he was only carrying the transplanted heart and lungs of another man. She pushed him onto the bed, onto the scratchy comforter. She’d once read that scientists had examined a hotel-room comforter and discovered four hundred and thirty-two different samples of sperm. God, she thought, those scientists obviously had too much time on their hands and, in the end, had failed to ask the most important questions: Who left the samples? Spouses, strangers? Were these exchanges of money, tenderness, disease? Was there love?
“This has to be quick,” she said to the stranger beside her.
* * *
Jeremiah, her husband, was already angry when Mary Lynn arrived thirty minutes late at the restaurant and he nearly lost all of his self-control when they were asked to wait for the next available table. He often raged at strangers, though he was incredibly patient and kind with their four children. Mary Lynn had seen that kind of rage in other white men when their wishes and desires were ignored. At ball games, in parking lots, and especially in airports, white men demanded to receive the privileges whose very existence they denied. White men could be so predictable, thought Mary Lynn. She thought: O, Jeremiah! O, season ticket holder! O, monthly parker! O, frequent flyer! She dreamed of him out there, sitting in the airplane with eighty-seven other white men wearing their second-best suits, all of them traveling toward small rooms in the Ramadas, Radissons, and sometimes the Hyatts, where they all separately watched the same pay-per-view porno that showed everything except penetration. What’s the point of porno without graphic penetration? Mary Lynn knew it only made these lonely men feel all that more lonely. And didn’t they deserve better, these white salesmen and middle managers, these twenty-first century Willie Lomans, who only wanted to be better men than their fathers had been? Of course, thought Mary Lynn, these sons definitely deserved better–they were smarter and more tender and generous than all previous generations of white American men–but they’d never receive their just rewards, and thus their anger was justified and banal.
“Calm down,” Mary Lynn said to her husband as he continued to rage at the restaurant hostess.
Mary Lynn said those two words to him more often in their marriage than any other combination of words.
“It could be twenty, thirty minutes,” said the hostess. “Maybe longer.”
“We’ll wait outside,” said Jeremiah. He breathed deeply, remembering some mantra that his therapist had taught him.
Mary Lynn’s mantra: I cheated on my husband, I cheated on my husband.
“We’ll call your name,” said the hostess, a white woman who was tired of men no matter what their color. “When.”
Their backs pressed against the brick wall, their feet crossed on the sidewalk, on a warm Seattle evening, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah smoked faux cigarettes filled with some foul-tasting, overwhelmingly organic herb substance. For years they had smoked unfiltered Camels, but had quit after all four of their parents had simultaneously suffered through at least one form of cancer. Mary Lynn had called them the Mormon Tabernacle Goddamn Cancer Choir, though none of them was Mormon and all of them were altos. With and without grace, they had all survived the radiation, chemotherapy, and in-hospital cable-television bingo games, with their bodies reasonably intact, only to resume their previously self-destructive habits. After so many nights spent in hospital corridors, waiting rooms, and armchairs, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah hated doctors, all doctors, even the ones on television, especially the ones on television. United in their obsessive hatred, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah resorted to taking vitamins, eating free-range chicken, and smoking cigarettes rolled together and marketed by six odoriferous white liberals in Northern California.
As they waited for a table, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah watched dozens of people arrive and get seated immediately.
“I bet they don’t have reservations,” he said.
“I hate these cigarettes,” she said.
“Why do you keep buying them?”
“Because the cashier at the health-food store is cute.”
“Like a mud puddle.”
Mary Lynn hated going out on weeknights. She hated driving into the city. She hated waiting for a table. Standing outside the downtown restaurant, desperate to hear their names, she decided to hate Jeremiah for a few seconds. Hate, hate, hate, she thought, and then she let her hate go. She wondered if she smelled like sex, like indigenous sex, and if a white man could recognize the scent of an enemy. She’d showered, but the water pressure had been weak and the soap bar too small.
“Let’s go someplace else,” she said.
“No. Five seconds after we leave, they’ll call our names.”
“But we won’t know they called our names.”
“But I’ll feel it.”
“It must be difficult to be psychic and insecure.”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
Clad in leather jackets and black jeans, standing inches apart but never quite touching, both handsome to the point of distraction, smoking crappy cigarettes that appeared to be real cigarettes, they could have been the subjects of a Schultz photograph or a Runnette poem.
The title of the photograph: “Infidelity.”
The title of the poem: “More Infidelity.”
Jeremiah’s virtue was reasonably intact, though he’d recently been involved in a flirtatious near-affair with a coworker. At the crucial moment, when the last button was about to be unbuttoned, when consummation was just a fingertip away, Jeremiah had pushed his potential lover away and said I can’t, I just can’t, I love my marriage. He didn’t admit to love for his spouse, partner, wife. No, he confessed his love for marriage, for the blessed union, for the legal document, for the shared mortgage payments, and for their four children.
Mary Lynn wondered what would happen if she grew pregnant with the Lummi’s baby. Would this full-blood baby look more Indian than her half-blood sons and daughters?
“Don’t they know who I am?” she asked her husband as they waited outside the downtown restaurant. She wasn’t pregnant; there would be no paternity tests, no revealing of great secrets. His secret: he was still in love with a white woman from high school he hadn’t seen in decades. What Mary Lynn knew: he was truly in love with the idea of a white woman from a mythical high school, with a prom queen named If Only or a homecoming princess named My Life Could Have Been Different.
“I’m sure they know who you are,” he said. “That’s why we’re on the wait list. Otherwise, we’d be heading for McDonald’s or Denny’s.”
“Your kinds of places.”
“Dependable. The Big Mac you eat in Hong Kong or Des Moines tastes just like the Big Mac in Seattle.”
“Sounds like colonialism to me.”
“Colonialism ain’t all bad.”
“Put that on a bumper sticker.”
This place was called Tan Tan, though it would soon be trendy enough to go by a nickname: Tan’s. Maybe Tan’s would become T’s, and then T’s would be identified only by a slight turn of the head or a certain widening of the eyes. After that, the downhill slide in reputation would be inevitable, whether or not the culinary content and quality of the restaurant remained exactly the same or improved. As it was, Tan Tan was a pan-Asian restaurant whose ownership and chefs–head, sauce, and line–were white, though most of the wait staff appeared to be one form of Asian or another.
“Don’t you hate it?” Jeremiah asked. “When they have Chinese waiters in sushi joints? Or Korean dishwashers in a Thai noodle house?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” she said.
“No, think about it, these restaurants, these Asian restaurants, they hire Asians indiscriminately because they think white people won’t be able to tell the difference.”
“White people can’t tell the difference.”
“Hey, Geronimo, you’ve been hanging around Indians too long to be white.”
“Fucking an Indian doesn’t make me Indian.”
“So, that’s what we’re doing now? Fucking?”
“You have a problem with fucking?”
“No, not with the act itself, but I do have a problem with your sexual thesaurus.”
Mary Lynn and Jeremiah had met in college, when they were still called Mary and Jerry. After sleeping together for the first time, after her first orgasm and his third, Mary had turned to Jerry and said, with absolute seriousness: If this thing is going to last, we have to stop the end rhyme. She had majored in Milton and Blake. He’d been a chemical engineer since the age of seven, with the degree being only a matter of formality, so he’d had plenty of time to wonder how an Indian from the reservation could be so smart. He still wondered how it had happened, though he’d never had the courage to ask her.
Now, a little more than two decades after graduating with a useless degree, Mary Lynn worked at Microsoft for a man named Dickinson. Jeremiah didn’t know his first name, though he hoped it wasn’t Emery, and had never met the guy, and didn’t care if he ever did. Mary Lynn’s job title and responsibilities were vague, so vague that Jeremiah had never asked her to elaborate. She often worked sixty-hour weeks and he didn’t want to reward that behavior by expressing an interest in what specific tasks she performed for Bill Gates.
Waiting outside Tan Tan, he and she could smell ginger, burned rice, beer.
“Are they ever going to seat us?” she asked.
“Yeah, don’t they know who you are?”
“I hear this place discriminates against white people.”
“Yeah, I heard once, these lawyers, bunch of white guys in Nordstrom’s suits, had to wait, like, two hours for a table.”
“Were those billable hours?”
“It’s getting hard for a white guy to find a place to eat.”
“Damn affirmative action is what it is.”
Their first child had been an accident, the result of a broken condom and a missed birth control pill. They named her Antonya, Toni for short. The second and third children, Robert and Michael, had been on purpose, and the fourth, Ariel, came after Mary Lynn thought she could no longer get pregnant.
Toni was fourteen, immature for her age, quite beautiful and narcissistic, with her translucent skin, her long blond hair, and eight-ball eyes. Botticelli eyes, she bragged after taking an Introduction to Art class. She never bothered to tell anybody she was Indian, mostly because nobody asked.
Jeremiah was quite sure that his daughter, his Antonya, had lost her virginity to the pimply quarterback of the junior varsity football team. He found the thought of his daughter’s adolescent sexuality both curious and disturbing. Above all else, he believed that she was far too special to sleep with a cliché, let alone a junior varsity cliché.
Three months out of every year, Robert and Michael were the same age. Currently, they were both eleven. Dark-skinned, with their mother’s black hair, strong jawline, and endless nose, they looked Indian, very Indian. Robert, who had refused to be called anything other than Robert, was the smart boy, a math prodigy, while Mikey was the basketball player.
When Mary Lynn’s parents called from the reservation, they always asked after the boys, always invited the boys out for the weekend, the holidays, and the summer, and always sent the boys more elaborate gifts than they sent the two girls.
When Jeremiah had pointed out this discrepancy to Mary Lynn, she had readily agreed, but had made it clear that his parents also paid more attention to the boys. Jeremiah never mentioned it again, but had silently vowed to love the girls a little more than he loved the boys.
As if love were a thing that could be quantified, he thought.
He asked himself: What if I love the girls more because they look more like me, because they look more white than the boys?
Towheaded Ariel was two, and the clay of her personality was just beginning to harden, but she was certainly petulant and funny as hell, with the ability to sleep in sixteen-hour marathons that made her parents very nervous. She seemed to exist in her own world, enough so that she was periodically monitored for incipient autism. She treated her siblings as if they somehow bored her, and was the kind of kid who could stay alone in her crib for hours, amusing herself with all sorts of personal games and imaginary friends.
Mary Lynn insisted that her youngest daughter was going to be an artist, but Jeremiah didn’t understand the child, and despite the fact that he was her father and forty-three years older, he felt inferior to Ariel.
He wondered if his wife was ever going to leave him because he was white.
When Tan Tan’s doors swung open, laughter and smoke rolled out together.
“You got another cigarette?” he asked.
“Quit calling them cigarettes. They’re not cigarettes. They’re more like rose bushes. Hell, they’ re more like the shit that rose bushes grow in.”
“You think we’re going to get a table?”
“By the time we get a table, this place is going to be very unpopular.”
“Do you want to leave?”
“If you do.”
“We told the baby-sitter we’d be home by ten.”
They both wished that Toni were responsible enough to baby-sit her siblings, rather than needing to be sat along with them.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Let’s go home.”
Last Christmas, when the kids had been splayed out all over the living room, buried to their shoulders in wrapping paper and expensive toys, Mary Lynn had studied her children’s features, had recognized most of her face in her sons’ faces and very little of it in her daughters’, and had decided, quite facetiously, that the genetic score was tied.
We should have another kid, she’d said to Jeremiah, so we’ll know if this is a white family or an Indian family.
It’s a family family, he’d said, without a trace of humor.
Only a white guy would say that, she’d said.
Well, he’d said, you married a white guy.
The space between them had grown very cold at that moment, in that silence, and perhaps one or both of them might have said something truly destructive, but Ariel had started crying then, for no obvious reason, relieving both parents of the responsibility of finishing that particular conversation. During the course of their relationship, Mary Lynn and Jeremiah had often discussed race as a concept, as a foreign country they occasionally visited, or as an enemy that existed outside their house, as a destructive force they could fight against as a couple, as a family. But race was also a constant presence, a houseguest and permanent tenant who crept around all the rooms in their shared lives, opening drawers, stealing utensils and small articles of clothing, changing the temperature.
Before he’d married Mary Lynn, Jeremiah had always believed there was too much talk of race, that white people were all too willing to be racist and that brown people were just as willing and just as racist. As a rational scientist, he’d known that race was primarily a social construct, illusionary, but as the husband of an Indian woman and the father of Indian children, he’d since learned that race, whatever its construction, was real. Now, there were plenty of white people who wanted to eliminate the idea of race, to cast it aside as an unwanted invention, but it was far too late for that. If white people are the mad scientists who created race, thought Jeremiah, than we created race so we could enslave black people and kill Indians, and now race has become the Frankenstein monster that has grown beyond our control. Though he’d once been willfully blind, Jeremiah had learned how to recognize that monster in the faces of whites and Indians and in their eyes.
Long ago, Jeremiah and Mary Lynn had both decided to challenge those who stared by staring back, by flinging each other against walls and tongue-kissing with pornographic élan.
Long ago, they’d both decided to respond to any questions of why, how, what, who, or when by simply stating: Love is Love. They knew it was romantic bullshit, a simpleminded answer only satisfying for simpleminded people, but it was the best available defense.
Listen, Mary Lynn had once said to Jeremiah, asking somebody why they fall in love is like asking somebody why they believe in God.
You start asking questions like that, she had added, and you’re either going to start a war or you’re going to hear folk music.
You think too much, Jeremiah had said, rolling over and falling asleep.
Then, in the dark, as Jeremiah slept, Mary Lynn had masturbated while fantasizing about an Indian man with sundance scars on his chest.
After they left Tan Tan, they drove a sensible and indigenous Ford Taurus over the 520 bridge, back toward their house in Kirkland, a five-bedroom rancher only ten blocks away from the Microsoft campus. Mary Lynn walked to work. That made her feel privileged. She estimated there were twenty-two American Indians who had ever felt even a moment of privilege.
“We still have to eat,” she said as she drove across the bridge. She felt strange. She wondered if she was ever going to feel normal again.
“How about Taco Bell drive-thru?” he asked.
“You devil, you’re trying to get into my pants, aren’t you?”
Impulsively, he dropped his head into her lap and pressed his lips against her black-jeaned crotch. She yelped and pushed him away. She wondered if he could smell her, if he could smell the Lummi Indian. Maybe he could, but he seemed to interpret it as something different, as something meant for him, as he pushed his head into her lap again. What was she supposed to do? She decided to laugh, so she did laugh as she pushed his face against her pubic bone. She loved the man for reasons she could not always explain. She closed her eyes, drove in that darkness, and felt dangerous.
Halfway across the bridge, Mary Lynn slammed on the brakes, not because she’d seen anything–her eyes were still closed–but because she’d felt something. The car skidded to a stop just inches from the bumper of a truck that had just missed sliding into the row of cars stopped ahead of it.
“What the hell is going on?” Jeremiah asked as he lifted his head from her lap.
“Jesus, we’ll never make it home by ten. We better call.”
“The cell phone is in the glove.”
Jeremiah dialed the home number but received only a busy signal.
“Toni must be talking to her boyfriend,” she said.
“I don’t like him.”
“He doesn’t like you.”
“What the hell is going on? Why aren’t we moving?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you go check?”
Jeremiah climbed out of the car.
“I was kidding,” she said as he closed the door behind him.
He walked up to the window of the truck ahead of him.
“You know what’s going on?” Jeremiah asked the truck driver.
Jeremiah walked farther down the bridge. He wondered if there was a disabled car ahead, what the radio liked to call a “blocking accident.” There was also the more serious “injury accident” and the deadly “accident with fatality involved.” He had to drive this bridge ten times a week. The commute. White men had invented the commute, had deepened its meaning, had diversified its complications, and now spent most of the time trying to shorten it, reduce it, lessen it.
In the car, Mary Lynn wondered why Jeremiah always found it necessary to insert himself into every situation. He continually moved from the passive to the active. The man was kinetic. She wondered if it was a white thing. Possibly. But more likely, it was a Jeremiah thing. She remembered Mikey’s third-grade-class’s school play, an edited version of Hamlet. Jeremiah had walked onto the stage to help his son drag the unconscious Polonius, who had merely been clubbed over the head rather than stabbed to death, from the stage. Mortally embarrassed, Mikey had cried himself to sleep that night, positive that he was going to be an elementary-school pariah, while Jeremiah vainly tried to explain to the rest of the family why he had acted so impulsively.
I was just trying to be a good father, he had said.
Mary Lynn watched Jeremiah walk farther down the bridge. He was just a shadow, a silhouette. She was slapped by the brief, irrational fear that he would never return.
Husband, come back to me, she thought, and I will confess.
Impatient drivers honked their horns. Mary Lynn joined them. She hoped Jeremiah would recognize the specific sound of their horn and return to the car.
Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me, she thought as she pounded the steering wheel.
Jeremiah heard their car horn, but only as one note in the symphony of noise playing on the bridge. He walked through that noise, through an ever-increasing amount of noise, until he pushed through a sudden crowd of people and found himself witnessing a suicide.
Illuminated by headlights, the jumper was a white woman, pretty, wearing a sundress and good shoes. Jeremiah could see that much as she stood on the bridge railing, forty feet above the cold water.
He could hear sirens approaching from both sides of the bridge, but they would never make it through the traffic in time to save this woman.
The jumper was screaming somebody’s name.
Jeremiah stepped closer, wanting to hear the name, wanting to have that information so that he could use it later. To what use, he didn’t know, but he knew that name had value, importance. That name, the owner of that name, was the reason why the jumper stood on the bridge.
“Aaron,” she said. The jumper screamed, “Aaron.”
In the car, Mary Lynn could not see either Jeremiah or the jumper, but she could see dozens of drivers leaving their cars and running ahead.
She was suddenly and impossibly sure that her husband was the reason for this commotion, this emergency. He’s dying, thought Mary Lynn, he’s dead. This is not what I wanted, she thought, this is not why I cheated on him, this is not what was supposed to happen.
As more drivers left their cars and ran ahead, Mary Lynn dialed 911 on the cell phone and received only a busy signal.
She opened her door and stepped out, placed one foot on the pavement, and stopped.
The jumper did not stop. She turned to look at the crowd watching her. She looked into the anonymous faces, into the maw, and then looked back down at the black water.
Then she jumped.
Jeremiah rushed forward, along with a few others, and peered over the edge of the bridge. One brave man leapt off the bridge in a vain rescue attempt. Jeremiah stopped a redheaded young man from jumping.
“No,” said Jeremiah. “It’s too cold. You’ll die too.”
Jeremiah stared down into the black water, looking for the woman who’d jumped and the man who’d jumped after her.
In the car, or rather with one foot still in the car and one foot placed on the pavement outside of the car, Mary Lynn wept. Oh, God, she loved him, sometimes because he was white and often despite his whiteness. In her fear, she found the one truth Sitting Bull never knew: there was at least one white man who could be trusted.
The black water was silent.
Jeremiah stared down into that silence.
“Jesus, Jesus,” said a lovely woman next to him. “Who was she? Who was she?”
“I’m never leaving,” Jeremiah said.
“What?” asked the lovely woman, quite confused.
“My wife,” said Jeremiah, strangely joyous. “I’m never leaving her.” Ever the scientist and mathematician, Jeremiah knew that his wife was a constant. In his relief, he found the one truth Shakespeare never knew: gravity is overrated.
Jeremiah looked up through the crossbeams above him, as he stared at the black sky, at the clouds that he could not see but knew were there, the invisible clouds that covered the stars. He shouted out his wife’s name, shouted it so loud that he could not speak in the morning.
In the car, Mary Lynn pounded the steering wheel. With one foot in the car and one foot out, she honked and honked the horn. She wondered if this was how the world was supposed to end, with everybody trapped on a bridge, with the black water pushing against their foundations.
Out on the bridge, four paramedics arrived far too late. Out of breath, exhausted from running across the bridge with medical gear and stretchers, the paramedics could only join the onlookers at the railing.
A boat, a small boat, a miracle, floated through the black water. They found the man, the would-be rescuer, who had jumped into the water after the young woman, but they could not find her.
Jeremiah pushed through the crowd, as he ran away from the place where the woman had jumped. Jeremiah ran across the bridge until he could see Mary Lynn. She and he loved each other across the distance.
1) Throughout these stories, Alexie questions the meaning of authenticity, especially as regards race. Both Mary Lynn in “Assimilation” and the protagonist of the titular story have encounters with Indians they consider more “authentic” than themselves; how are they defining authenticity? Do you agree with their definitions?
2) Many of the characters in these stories have a romantic vision of Indianness; for those who live in the city or are married to white people”like Mary Lynn in “Assimilation” and Edgar in “Class’”that romanticism is tempered with guilt: guilt that they have left the reservation, guilt that they have sought partners outside their race, even guilt that they view those who have remained on the reservation (or who appear closer to their ideal version of Indianness) with a mixture of awe and longing. Why do you think these characters have such difficulties with their own definitions of themselves, and why do you think it matters to them so?
3) Alexie’s characters question the origins of romantic love, especially those characters in interracial relationships. Roman in ‘saint Junior” thinks, “of course you chose who you loved” (page 178). Do you agree with this, or do you think we have no control over the people with whom we fall in love?
4) Alexie and his characters are continually asking – implicitly and explicitly – what makes an Indian an Indian: is it wearing your hair a certain way? Living on the reservation? Speaking a certain way? Do you think Alexie offers any definite answers? How have his characters redefined, maintained, or created their own version of Indianness, especially those so far removed from their ancestors’ traditions? Do you think Alexie believes race is a contrivance? Why or why not?
5) Alexie uses salmon, a traditional staple for many of his characters, to symbolize different things throughout these stories. How is salmon significant to these characters and their lives? How does Alexie use salmon to connote something greater and less defined? (Consider how the protagonist in “The Toughest Indian in the World” smells like salmon after his sexual encounter with the fighter, or how the inevitable dinner table culture clash between father and daughter in “Indian Country” is temporarily held at bay by the arrival of the salmon the father has ordered.)
6) Discuss how Alexie plays with the meaning and connotations of the word “tribe.” Grace, “a Mohawk Indian from the island of Manhattan” in ‘saint Junior” muses “that she’d realized she was more Spokane than anything else” [page 161]. What do you think Alexie is saying about the definitions, the cultural and racial boundaries, of a “tribe”? How do the characters’both Indian and White”in these stories define tribes, and do they all associate with one? How does Alexie define a tribe, besides racially? (Consider Alex Weber in ‘saint Junior,” whom Grace leaves “with the rest of his tribe.” [page 185]) Besides their Indian tribes, what other tribes do Alexie’s characters claim membership in?
7) Etta Joseph, the heroine in “Dear John Wayne” tells her interviewer “In order to survive, to thrive, I have to be white fifty-seven minutes of every hour.” [page 194] What does it mean to “be white” in these characters’ lives? How is it different from “being Indian”? Do you think the characters have mastered “being white” better or more comprehensively than they have “being Indian”? What do you think Alexie is saying about the way Indians have been forced to suppress their identities to survive in a white-dominated world?
8) Consider the concept of “tradition” as Alexie applies it throughout these stories. The protagonist of “One Good Man” talks about his and his wife’s “nontraditional arrangement” with their son ‘strange when measured by white standards, but’very traditional by Indian standards’ [page 217]. What traditions do these characters mourn for? What are the new traditions they have formed, and how have they developed? How do you think Alexie feels about traditions in general? Can traditions, even the harmful ones, be valuable? Are there any traditions in these characters’ lives’and in your life”that you consider destructive?
9) Alexie, through his characters, explores many different kinds of love in these stories’love between two people, between a person and his people and culture, between child and parent. Do you think Alexie ever implies that one form of love is more contrived than another? Is there a model of “pure” love he presents within this book? How do the characters’ love for others change throughout their individual stories? (Consider “One Good Man”‘s protagonist’s changing relationship with his reservation, his child, his people, and his father.
10) Many of the Indian characters in their lives find themselves’sometimes inexplicably”in relationships with white people, about which they feel conflicted (think of Mary Lynn in “Assimilation” or Edgar in “Class’). To their surprise, though, they find that their relationships with Indians are often no easier. Besides racial differences, what other factors create rifts and distances between Alexie’s characters?”
11) “The Sin Eaters’ is a nightmare vision of a nameless power using the blood of Indians to save the world from annihilation. Many of the soldiers who round up the Indians are ethnic (black, Indian), although the doctors and leaders who make the decisions are clearly Northern European. The unnamed power views its Indian captives as a crucial part of its own survival, going so far as to force procreation between the captives. What do you think Alexie is saying about the dominant culture and its relationship to people of different cultures and races? Although the Sin Eaters is a thinly-veiled comment on race relations in America at their worst, do you think Alexie’s attitudes are completely negative? Do you think his view of race is black and white, or does it defy easy categorization?
12) Consider the stories taken as a whole and compare them with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Native Son by Richard Wright, both of which are stories of outsiders trying to live in a world where they are not wanted, not thought of, until it’s convenient for the leading culture. Do you think they are an accurate depiction of race relations in America? Do you think Sherman Alexie and Ralph Ellison are contributing to the same discussion of race even though they are focused on different ethnicities at different times periods?
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Native Son by Richard Wright; Typical American by Gish Jen; Middleman and other Stories by Bharatti Mukherjee; Drown by Junot Diaz; Out of the Woods by Chris Offutt.