Danny Vallego knocked again. There was still no answer, so he left the package on the porch and walked back to the delivery truck.
Opening the door, he grabbed his clipboard and scribbled some information onto the UPS invoice.
Someone honked, and Danny looked up and saw Rodney Good Eagle behind the wheel of his Chevy Impala.
"Hey, Biff," Rodney called.
Danny walked over and leaned in the window. "Haven't you got something better to do than drive this piece of shit around?"
"I got off early today. Had to take Kyle over to get his finger stitched."
"Yeah? What happened?"
"The little dummy was trying to flip rocks with a broken bottle. He cut the crap out of himself."
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah. When it was over, I took him to the DQ and he ate two damn chocolate sundaes."
Danny smiled, and then pulled his cigarettes from his brown uniform pocket. He offered one to Rodney. "So, you heard from Trish lately?"
Rodney shrugged and fished around the dashboard for matches. "Her mother says she's out in
She's living with some guy who works for the highway department. Some goddamn shovel-leaner." San Bernardino
"I'm real sorry, man."
"Hey, that's life, right?" The pain behind Rodney's grin made Danny stare at the mailboxes across the street.
Then Danny said, "How about we go up to King's later? Bring the kids. They've got burger baskets tonight."
"My sister's got Kyle and Mindy. Some ice cream social going on up at the school."
"More ice cream, huh?"
"Yeah, more damn ice cream."
"So, when's the last time you and me went someplace together?"
"Long time ago, man. Way back when you and Bonnie and me and Trish went camping at the
." Chiricahua Monument
Recollection made Danny smile. "Yeah, Bonnie and Trish wanted to play hide and seek in all those rock formations. And Trish slipped and hurt her ankle.”
“Yeah, I had to carry her down a hundred feet of scree."
"And we made a support for her out of clay and wet socks."
Rodney laughed. "Then we caught those trout and fried them up for supper. I don't know if anything's ever smelled that good since."
"But we didn't bury the guts deep enough, remember, and that bear came into camp..."
"That's right!" Rodney's grin was huge. "It scared the hell out of Trish and Bonnie."
"Hey, it scared the hell out of you and me. We didn't have a damn thing to defend ourselves."
"Except my pocket knife."
"....with the broken blade," they said in unison, and then both laughed.
Rodney took another drag from his cigarette and blew out the smoke. "But that bear was sacred, man. He was a Sacred Bear."
"What are you talking about?"
"He frightened the women just enough so that Trish and Bonnie ended up sleeping with us in our bags. It was the best sex I ever had. Except I didn't come prepared and that's when Trish got pregnant with Kyle." Rodney looked off to the traffic moving slowly across the intersection. "I was never prepared, you know? Not for anything in my whole goddamn life...not school, that camping trip, Trish's pregnancy, Trish fucking Simon Ortiz..."
"Hey," Danny gripped his shoulder. "You got the kids, man, you got Kyle and Mindy and you've done really good with them."
Rodney nodded, and then flicked his cigarette butt out the window. "I better get going. Got the wash sitting in the damn Laundromat now for six days."
"Pick me up later."
Rodney looked at him. "Yeah?"
"We'll find something to do."
---- ---- ----
By the time Rodney got over to Dan's house, Danny was showered and had watched two episodes of M.A.S.H. re-runs.
Rodney had showered too and was wearing a ribbon shirt, jeans and boots. He wore his hair free and it hung down to the middle of his back. When he walked it moved behind him like a black cloud.
Watching him, Danny remembered something Bonnie used to say: "You keep giving me shit, Vallego, and I'm going to run away with Rodney. He has the best ass and hair on the rez."
Rodney sat down on the end of the couch now and watched a commercial about stomach gas.
Danny said, "Where do you want to go?"
"King's. I'm in the mood for some real grease burgers. At home I'm fixing all this healthy stuff for the kids. The social worker last month wasn't too pleased with what I had in my cupboards. And here I thought all I had to do was keep them full. Anyway, I got a book and everything, and last night we had chicken and rice and broccoli."
"Fried chicken sounds pretty good to me."
"You don't fry it, man, you bake it." They had walked outside, and now Rodney climbed behind the wheel of the Chevy while Danny rode shotgun.
During the drive across town to King's, Rodney thought about the cooking he had done when he lived with Trish. On Sunday mornings. And Tuesday nights when Trish and her girlfriends got together and beaded earrings. He had made great omelets then, and chili, and Cajun shrimp. Everyone had raved.
But after Trish left, he had been too out of shape from drinking and sadness to ever be good again. Still, he liked the feel of a heavy fry pan in his hands and the pride that came with putting good food on the table.
At King's they grabbed a corner booth and ordered burger baskets and cokes. The place was nearly full, and Rodney couldn't imagine how many grease burgers were being flipped that night.
As they ate, they began to notice that nearly every woman that came in or out smiled at Danny or asked Rodney about his kids. Either way, they were getting a whole lot of attention from the opposite sex, so they decided to stay and have dessert.
Their luck continued through three more cups of coffee, and when they finally left, it was with two waitresses that had just finished their shift.
They stood in the parking lot smoking and talking. The waitresses' names were Brooke and Tammy. Already they had made their choices between the two men.
"There's a protest going on tonight over at the Waste Site," Brooke told Danny.
And he had to take a couple deep breaths. Party time is what she really meant, and he wasn't ready.
For two months now, he had stayed sober, with work occupying his days and his evenings limited to TV re-runs and an occasional romp in the sack. The latter held no more significance for him than watching a good basketball game. He had six months of sobriety to get through before Bonnie would have him back and everything in between was just killing time.
But those sidelong glances Rodney was giving Tammy told him they would be going to the Waste Site. It was the way Tammy kept pushing her hair back behind her ears. Trish had the same habit, and Rodney was seeing old stars in a new sky.
The proposed nuclear waste storage site was a wild, distant, fragile island of white sand. Danny stuck his head out the car window to get a better look. He watched as an owl took wing from a pinion bough and flew across the stars. Soon the whole area would be home for tons of old nuclear reactor fuel rods. He slumped back down in his seat. It was too bad, he thought, that wilderness didn't always end wherever political boundaries said it should.
As they drew closer, an old shack leaned heavily in the moonlight, with the words NO NUKE DUMPING painted white across its walls. Just beyond, two dozen or so anti-nuclear activists stood in front of pickup trucks, shouting slogans and waving signs. Rodney pulled up and joined the other vehicles parked in the sand.
It seemed the only requirement to join them was to sign an "anti-dumping" petition.
Rodney was the first to sign, followed by the two waitresses. Danny walked up and signed the petition slowly. He was cautious and looked everywhere around him as though alcohol might sneak up and drop a hood over his head.
After signing the paper, the four of them joined a group of sitting around a campfire. Most of the people there were young. Yet a few elderly faces peppered the crowd. Someone had brought a drum and singing began, switching quickly to the old songs. This seemed strange in a place that was soon to become home to the nation’s entire supply of plutonium.
The elders sang about the way it used to be, when there was nothing around but sand and canyons and clouds. Danny liked the singing, the way it carried into the hills. He liked sitting in the sand where it was dark, and cool, and peaceful. But when a bottle of Jack Daniels appeared to his left, he and Rodney looked at each other hard.
Then Rodney smiled. It was one of his wide grins that showed every one of his white teeth. He took the bottle, chugged down a couple mouthfuls and passed it to Danny.
Danny waited under the eyes of his friend. In the background he could hear the skipping beat of the drum and was aware of a couple dancers. He stared at the bottle of Jack Daniels, and then stared some more. He stared so long into the glass that all he could see was the moon looking back. Then he passed the bottle on.
Rodney chugged whiskey the next three passes, then got up and left the circle. He felt restless and wild and scared.
After a while, Tammy found him sitting on a cliff. She took his hands and drew him down into the red sand. Pulling him on top of her, she kissed his mouth, and held him between her thighs.
At first Rodney thought it wonderful. He took her breasts in his hands and moved against her, kissing her face and lips. And when she was on fire and opened her legs for him, he tried with all of his might to shape her body into Trish. He kissed and stroked and pushed against her, and still she remained the waitress from King's Place.
Rodney moved away now, apologizing, pretending he was too drunk to do her justice, but the hunger in him was ferocious, worse than ever before. He went inside the shack where a group of teenage boys were sniffing glue in the corner. Sitting on the floor, he leaned back against the wall and was amazed at how the dilapidated structure could hold him. Then some kid passed him a bottle and he chugged it down until he felt less brutal, less violent.
When Danny came inside, Rodney grinned like he hadn't seen him for a million years. He motioned for Danny to sit next to him, and he kept drinking and smiling, pretending not to notice the way that Danny stared.
Then Rodney said, "Look at me. I'm paralyzed."
"What are you talking about?"
"There’s no way out. I’ve got chains wrapped around me, man, with a two-ton anchor. Can’t you see it?"
"You got to quit drinking. Things will look different tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Rodney smiled, and he could feel the horror of that smile as it twisted over his face. "I see things clearer tonight then I ever have before. The booze just lets the truth out, that's all. I gotta have Trish, man. I gotta have Trish."
Someone walked by and handed Rodney a reefer. He took a long, deep drag, then handed it back. "Fly the friendly skies!"
"Come on, let's go." Danny pulled him to his feet. "You won't get Trish back if you're all messed up."
But the smirk had faded from Rodney's face. He stared at Danny, and there was gravity in his dark eyes. A whole anguished history burning cold and disheartened and black. "You don’t get it. You just don't get it. Trish is never coming back."
Danny watched him walk away, taking all the light with him.
Some young punks in the corner were inhaling spray paint. Rodney went over to watch. One kid sprayed paint into a grocery bag, sealed it quick, and handed the bag to Rodney. Rodney took it and pushed his face inside the bag. Danny turned away.
He was half way out the door when someone called from behind, "Hey, this guy just passed out."
Danny turned and saw Rodney collapsed on the floor. "Shit..." He made his way over, looked down, and felt like he'd been gutshot. "Help me!" he shouted, and a couple kids helped him lift Rodney out of the shack and into the car.
People began to gather, and out of the middle came Tammy and Brooke. Tammy climbed into the back seat and immediately cradled Rodney's head. But he sagged against her like a balloon that had lost all its air. "Oh, God, oh, God..."
Danny hit the gas and sent the car skidding through the sand. He drove faster than he'd ever driven in his whole life. And still he could not outdistance the words that rushed into his brain:
Rodney Good Eagle is dead.
He inhaled too much, too quickly. Asphyxiation. Cardiac arrest.
Danny stood on the fourth floor of the hospital looking down at the parking lot. He was thinking about the time when he and Rodney were eight years old and had collected a batch of turtle eggs. After watching the mother bury them in the sand alongside a road, they grabbed a bucket, and carefully scooped up the new eggs thinking they had saved the hatchlings from becoming future road kill.
Putting the bucket in Rodney's grandfather's shed, they checked the eggs every afternoon, expecting any day to find the tiny turtles scratching and clawing their way to the top. But after a week of finding nothing but the same old sand, they decided the babies had died, and they dumped the eggs behind the shed and let the crows have them.
Afterward, when they learned that it took weeks to hatch a turtle egg, they had hid in the shed for two days, believing they were in for a whipping after being so careless. But the whipping had never come, only Rodney's grandfather with a plate of food he left sit by the side of the door. Danny still remembered the smell of that stew and how it was forever connected to grandfathers and turtle eggs.
Behind him on the visitor's couch Rodney's sister was crying softly while Kyle pulled at a small rip in the upholstery. It was the hopelessness of the gesture that made Danny turn away. He stood with his back to Rodney's family, his mind keeping to the past, moving slowly, tediously, over the years. It was the only way he could deal with things - bit by bit, piece by piece.
Someone was walking heavily down the corridor now and coming straight for him. It was Joe Cinta, head of Tribal Police, and he gripped Danny's shoulder and spun him around.
"What the hell were you thinking, man? You know all the drinking and drugs that go on up there. Why the hell did you go?"
Danny sagged against him, his eyes closed.
The motion turned Joe's fury into despair. "Shit. Shit!"
Danny opened his eyes and swallowed air hard. He felt like he was gagging, like his throat was filled with grain. Moving to the exit, he ran down the four flights of stairs and out into the parking lot.
He thought: whenever I see Trish again, I'm going to kill her ...choke the goddamn life right out of her. The bitterness of it was like corrosion in his throat.
An old telephone booth stood on the corner, and Danny smashed into it like a wrecking ball. He kicked and broke glass, ripped the Yellow Pages off the chain, tore the phone straight off the wall.
Finally, exhaustion overcame him, and he sat red-eyed and fevered in a pile of glass. He stayed that way all night.
For three days Danny searched for a way to say good-bye and found none. He and Rodney's bright childhood dreams had been shattered. Rodney was dead and there was nothing as final as reality. Aristotle had said reality was illusory, Danny had read when in High school, but as he helped carry Rodney's coffin to the burial grounds, he knew this was bullshit.
---- ---- ----
The ceremony was over.
Danny had listened to the drumming and singing a long time with his eyes closed and now opened them, searching the sky for a hawk or sparrow - something that would tell him Rodney's spirit had been released.
His eyes shifted across the crowd, and he saw Trish standing on the other side, flanked by Kyle and Mindy. She didn't see him; she didn't seem to see anyone. She just stood there shaking as though it were the middle of winter and she'd lost her coat.
As the ceremony ended, she was swallowed up by the crowd, and then reappeared moments later, walking toward the end of the burial grounds. Danny ran after her, ran swiftly to catch her before she could get away.
Trish paused by her car, heard a sound, and turned. Then she and Danny stood looking at each other with their eyes speaking of old things.
Danny grabbed Trish by the hair and shook her hard. “You killed, Rodney! You fucking killed Rodney!” Then they were in each other’s arms, crying their guts out.Behind them, birds called and sang cheerfully in the afternoon sun.
Judith Schiller has worn several hats over the years... dairy farmer, fire department dispatcher, and tornado spotter, yet has always kept writing. She has published articles, interviews, and short stories in numerous magazines, and was also the promotional director of a multi-cultural theater with mostly Native American actors. Her home is in
’s north woods. She lives there
with her husband, her Tibetan mastiff, and a host of other critters, both tame
and wild. Under the Blazing Sun is her second novel. Minnesota