Trail of Tears

          I was worried about taking Jennifer to the rez for Thanksgiving. She was the only girlfriend I ever had who would let me get it in on a regular basis and far be it from me to jeopardize the good thing we had going by introducing her to a bunch of drunk Indians I called family. There was a lot at stake. I was in love with this girl—head-over-balls in love—and I wanted to ask her to marry me. But I was an aspiring poet, poor, and had the genes of an injun. The rez is not a particularly romantic place—double-wides warmed by cigarette smoke only have so much spark. And I knew my uncle Georgie, a mean son-of-a-bitch who had served in Iraq, twice, before a dishonorable discharge, was going to be there. Nothing quite squashes the romantic mood like hearing a story about the joys of shooting ragheads, point-blank, in the turban. I told Jennifer that if she really wanted to see plastered Indians, we were sure to spot one in Corvallis if we barhopped enough. But she insisted: she wanted to see the reservation.
          So, we drove from OSU towards the coast, making our way to the Coquille Indian Tribe Rez, what I used to call home.  
          “I’m so excited to meet your mother. I hope she likes me.” Jennifer rubbed the back of my head, tangling my hair in her fingers. I had chopped off my ponytail years ago.
          “She’ll love you,” I lied. My mother had always hoped I’d marry a nice girl from the reservation. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there were no nice girls on the reservation. All the good girls left. Poof! Gone. Like Jesus lovers in the rapture. The girls who were left had the IQ of the temperature outside in August or were druggies supporting their habit by spreading their legs.
          “Recite something for me.” Jennifer pulled her legs up underneath her, pulling her dress up well over her tight-covered thighs.  
          I had escaped the rez because I could spell reservation and lots of other words, put them together, and make it sound like poetry. It wasn’t poetry. Not really. Poetry is the truth. I lie. All Indians are liars. I cleared my throat. “Once upon a midnight—”
          I looked over at Jennifer, losing myself in her lucid blue eyes. “Something you’ve written.”
          We were driving underneath an archway of trees, making an already overcast day much, much darker. I flipped my lights on and they cut into the darkness. “There once was an Injun, educated at a mission, about Jesus and His love. He memorized the cannon, and went into action, preaching about the White Man above. He told his people, what he learned under the steeple, and to stop eating doves. They did not listen, to this poor Injun, and gave the poor bastard a shove. He came back with blankets, told them to take it, and then buried them all in the mud.”
          “Well…” Jennifer looked down at her feet, crimson rushing through her cheeks. “That’s not depressing.” She immediately turned on the radio and turned up “Heroes (we could be)” by Alesso. We drove the rest of the way listening to pop.
          When we pulled up to my parent’s single-wide, it was raining. I was glad that my skin was dark, because I could feel heat circulating through my face. The trailer was the same. Moss ate into the roof, the paneling was rusted, and the plastic, white picket-fence I had set up when I was eighteen was leaning towards the house at a forty-five degree angle. “Home. Home, sweet home.” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
          I took Jennifer by the hand and pulled her towards the door. I knocked, a smile cemented to my face. The door opened and cigarette smoke wafted out. My mother screamed, “Michael! Come in, come in. Get out of the rain.” She sounded surprised to see me, almost like she didn’t believe I was really coming over for Thanksgiving. I was having a hard time believing it myself. I bent down and wrapped her in a hug. I could already smell whiskey on her breath.
          “This is my squaw, Jennifer,” I said.
          My mother slapped my arm. “Michael! Don’t be rude!” My mother, a stout woman, built like an NFL running back, with muscled forearms and thick shoulders, looked Jennifer up and down.
          Jennifer raised her arm for a handshake. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Stone.”
          My mother disregarded Jennifer’s hand and engulfed her in a hug. “No. We hug in this family, uh—”
          “Jennifer,” I said.
          “Jennifer,” my mother laughed. 
          We absolutely do not hug in our family. I only made a show of hugging my mother for Jennifer’s sake. That’s why it surprised me when my mom hugged her. It was the second time she’s ever surprised me in my life. The first time was when I came home from my senior prom drunk. I had chugged eight Pabst Blue Ribbons in the back of the school parking lot with Ben, my white best-friend. After I had wretched twice, Ben and I parted ways. I drove home and he drove off a cliff, right through the guardrails. The next day they found him, still in his seatbelt, his head a mushy pulp. I didn’t know Ben was dead when I staggered into the house, tripped on something, and hit the floor hard. By the time I had managed to get to my feet, my mother was in the living room. She just stared at me for a couple seconds. Then she slapped me, hard. It was the first and last time my mother ever really hit me.
          “Michael,” she had said, “you have brains. You can write! Don’t fuck it up.”   
          I wrote a poem for Ben’s funeral. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since.
          My mother let go of Jennifer and beamed at both of us. “It’s so good to have you.” An alarm went off in the kitchen and she turned, saying behind her shoulder, “The turkey’s almost done.”
          I turned my attention to my father and Uncle Georgie, who were both sitting on the couch watching the news. My father was dressed in jeans and a carhartt. My uncle was also dressed in jeans and a carhartt except he wore an accessory—a 1911 in a shoulder holster. As long as I’d known the guy, he had always open-carried, like he was daring society to call him on it, to denounce him his as a gun-toting Redman. He would have liked the title too.
          The news anchor was raving about some cop who had shot and killed a black man in apparent self-defense. I walked over to them, Jennifer in tow, and shook both their hands. They both grunted greetings and Jennifer said some nice sentiments that were not returned. Jennifer and I sat down on the loveseat. She entwined her fingers through mine and squeezed three times. Her hand was sweaty. I returned I love you through similar pressure.
          “I would have killed him,” Uncle Georgie said.
          My father nodded and blew out cigarette smoke through his nose.
          My uncle looked at me and a grin I didn’t entirely care for crept across his face. “What about you?”
          “What about me?” I asked. Jennifer’s hand clamped down, her grip cutting off the circulation in my right hand.
          “Would you have shot the black bastard or what?”
          “I most definitely would have shot the black bastard.”
          “Don’t get flippant with me.” Uncle Georgie took a long pull from a whiskey bottle. “I could beat the shit out of you.”
          I looked at him. He was wearing his brother’s dog tags and he had regrown his ponytail. He had lost some weight. His cheeks were sunken and his once massive frame was now gaunt. His twin brother had enlisted when Uncle Georgie had joined. They were some of the first marines sent over to Iraq after 9/11, sent in with the First Marine Division, under a general named James Mattis. I wrote a paper about it my freshman year in college. Long story short: two Indians left and one Indian returned wearing his brother’s dog tags. Uncle Thomas had been riddled by an M-16 in what the armed forces call “friendly fire,” a euphemism for “fucked by friends.”
          “No thanks,” I said.
          My father laughed. His laugh immediately morphed into a gut-wrenching cough, from chain-smoking the last twenty years. My mother came in holding a tray with a turkey, roasted to perfection, steaming up into the moldy ceiling. “Let’s eat.”
          Jennifer and I both got up. We walked into the dining room, essentially a portion of the living room with a table squeezed in, and took our seats. My uncle and father were both slow to get up. My mother grabbed the remote and turned off the TV.
          “What’d you do that for, woman?” my father spat.
          “We’re going to eat at the table. It’s Thanksgiving.” My mother’s voice had an edge to it.
          This was new, obviously for Jennifer’s benefit. I glanced at her and winked. She smiled back.  
          Uncle Georgie got slowly to his feet, methodically, like a sailor trying to keep his feet planted on a rolling deck. He staggered over to the table and almost fell off the chair. He smiled. “We’re actually celebrating the extermination of Indians.”
          My father looked at him, but said nothing.
          My mother took her place and folded her hands like she was going to say grace. “Before we eat,” she said, “let’s each say something we’re thankful for.”
          We all eyed the food in famished silence. There were mashed potatoes with a brown gravy to slather all over them, hot rolls, and marshmallow-covered yams with brown-sugar sprinkled on top. I really didn’t want to say what I was thankful for. I was hungry.
          “I’ll start,” my mother said. “I’m thankful for my job at the casino. I’m thankful that Dad is now the blackjack dealer. I’m thankful for Mike’s scholarship at OSU. And I’m thankful that Georgie, Jennifer, and Michael can be here.” My mother nodded at me. “Your turn, Mike.”
          I turned to Jennifer. “I’m thankful to have this beautiful woman in my life.”
          She smiled and kissed me. Uncle Georgie made a face like he was sucking on lemons.
          It was Jennifer’s turn. “I’m thankful to be spending Thanksgiving with Mike’s family.” She smiled at each family member. I felt my blood-pressure rise when Uncle Georgie rolled his eyes.  
          It was his turn. He finished up the bottle of whiskey and wiped his mouth off with the back of his sleeve. “Let’s see,” he said. “There’s just so much to be thankful for.” He let this sink in.
          “I’m thankful that I served my country. I’m thankful that I shot me some ragheads. It’s just too bad I couldn’t scalp them.” I could feel the heat from my mother burning holes into my uncle’s eyes. But Uncle Georgie didn’t seem to notice. His hand flew to his dog tags. His thumb instinctively rubbed the thin sheets of metal together. “I’m thankful Thomas got shot in the back and didn’t see it coming.” There was no irony in this statement.
          I glanced over at Jennifer. Her face flushed crimson.
          My father was next.
          “I’m thankful that we can eat.” He looked at my mother to see if this was sufficient. She gave the final nod and the feast commenced.
          “What are you studying, uh—”
          “Jennifer,” I said.
          “Jennifer.” My mother smiled.
          Jennifer put her napkin to her mouth and swallowed. “I’m a history major and writing minor.”
          “I’ll teach you some history,” my uncle offered.
          “No thanks, Squanto,” I countered, trying to imitate my mother’s edgy tone. “She has legit history professors.”  
          “Personal history, dipshit.” He looked over at Jennifer. “When I got back, the docs tried to tell me I had PTSD or some kind of bullshit. PTSD is for pussies. You got to be a man to kill and walk out without it messing with your head.”
          I clapped. “You’re a real man, Uncle Georgie. No pussies here. So—”
          “Shut the hell up.” My uncle pointed a trembling index finger in my face. His voice raised the hair on the back of my neck. I looked down at my plate and moved some turkey around with my fork. “So, I got a job. And I’m an Indian, so I got a job at the casino. I start dealing for blackjack. It’s a good gig. You get tips and stuff and sometimes girls will slip you notes with their room numbers on them, if you’re lucky. Anyway, they told me I couldn’t wear Tom’s dog tags to work. I told them they could stick that up their ass and forget it. One night, just before my shift was over, a guy starts razzing me about my dog tags. He told me there’s no way that an Indian served in the Marines, said we just didn’t have the balls. So, I broke most of his teeth, fractured a couple ribs, and put him in the hospital.” He smiled at this. “I lost my job. But the moral of the story is”— he locked eyes on me— “don’t forget who you are.”
          “What’s that supposed to mean?” I could feel the blood rushing to my face. My palms were sweaty.
          “You know what it means,” Uncle Georgie sneered. He slammed two closed fists onto the table, causing the silverware to sing. 
          I wanted to hit him. I wanted to crash my plate over his stupid face and beat the hell out of him. He was drunk and I was in pretty good shape. It wouldn’t take much. I glanced down at his 1911, wondering if he was drunk enough to shoot his own nephew. Just when I was about to jump him, Jennifer moved.   
          Jennifer reached over across the table and folded her frail, white fingers over my uncle’s fists. “Thank you for serving our country.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
          That did it. Uncle Georgie started bawling. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Snot ran down his face and neck as his hands shook. “I promised him I’d bring him home. I promised him that. I promised.”
          I wish I had hit him and then I’d be rolling on the floor getting the shit beat out of me instead of staring at my plate, hoping he’d stop crying. He finally got up and walked to the bathroom. My father just stared at his plate. My mother looked over at Jennifer. “Thank you for your kind words.”  
          “War is a terrible thing,” Jennifer said.
          That’s when the gun went off. Before I knew it, I was busting down the bathroom door, but it was too late. Uncle Georgie’s body was sprawled across the toilet. It looked like someone had flicked red paint against the wall. Blood poured from his mouth and over his chin, staining his shirt. Uncle Thomas’s chain was wrapped around his right-wrist, the dog tags clenched in his fist. I wanted to tell Jennifer to stop screaming, just stop screaming. Then I realized it was me. I picked up the gun and took out the magazine and ejected the bullet out of the chamber, like he had shown me when I was younger.
          “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,” Jennifer screamed, looking over my shoulder. I don’t know how she got there. She turned and stumbled down the hall, her voice echoing off the walls behind her.
          The room began to spin. I fell to my knees and vomited up turkey and mashed-potatoes into the bathtub. I wiped the puke off with my sleeve. I crawled over to Uncle Georgie’s body. Warm blood soaked into my clothes as I pulled myself across the linoleum floor. When I reached him, I placed my head in his lap. I gripped Uncle Georgie’s hand, with the dog tags, in mine.
          I wore both Uncle Georgie’s and Uncle Thomas’s dog tags to the funeral. I wrote a poem, entitled “Pilgrims,” and read it out loud to both friends and family. It was a lie. The entire poem was a lie. I called Uncle Georgie a good man, a funny man, a man who rose in the face of adversity. In the end he was just a man, a dead man. He was a drunk, a gambler, a chain-smoking native who’d lost his brother in a war after promising to bring him home alive. He had joined a tribe away from his tribe, searching for purpose, for sovereignty and found neither. Lies are always easier to swallow.
          I still wear the dog tags. 

Seth D. Slater has been published by Trans Lit Mag, TreeHouse: An Exhibition of the Arts, and Canyon Voices. Slater is currently finishing up his undergraduate degree at Oregon State University and plans to pursue an MFA upon graduation.