Darkness kindled

Desert

Lying prone on his army cot in his hogan, nursing his hangover, Thomas Etcitty listened to the pervasive hum of the locusts hovering about his paddock this windless day in the unforgiving heat of July.  How long had it been since he had fallen off the wagon?  Three years?  Four years?  Nora, his wife, had struck him over the head with the business end of a shovel when he returned home in his inebriated state that night so long ago.  It was a promise he fully intended to abide by, but one that he realized it was probably not in his power to keep.  The Advil he swallowed early this morning afforded no break from the throbbing in his head.  His Appaloosa whinnied.  He heard a vehicle creeping up to his house.  A heavy rain had fallen the night before, and he could hear it picking its way splashing through the potholes of red mud and snarling stone, a dirt road that had never known the blade of a road grader.  He rose slowly from his cot, his head hurting something fierce.   He stood at the entrance of the hogan, but only after he had taken two more aspirin.   From the entrance of the hogan, he could see the turn-off from the highway, a half-mile away.  Ruddy water squirted from the wheel wells of the white Blazer that he now recognized to be the sheriff’s.  Close to a decade had elapsed since they made routine trips to the Etcitty place when he was on one of his benders, and they were there to arrest him.  What indeed had transpired while he was in his inebriated and incapacitated state last night?  His wife was away in Window Rock attending a conference for the medical records departments of the reservation’s public health service hospitals and clinics.  His two boys, Tony, twenty-one years of age, was working the drilling rigs south of Farmington, and Billy, two years his junior, was working on a road construction project just the other side of the boundaries of the reservation past Tuba City. 

When the Chevy Blazer pulled abreast of the hogan’s door, Etcitty could see that it was his old friend Jimmy Gorman, a full sheriff, at the wheel.  The deputy sheriff sitting next to him he did not recognize.  With the rose-colored water dripping from the underside of the Blazer, Gorman stepped out of the four-wheel drive, planting his feet on a large piece of dry sandstone, not more than three feet from Etcitty.  “Yah-te-hey,” he said as he took off his cowboy hat and wiped the sweat from the hat band.  Gorman and Etcitty had been in the same class in high school in Shiprock.  On more than one occasion, they’d gotten drunk together.  But Gorman’s life shifted in a different fashion, and he joined the sheriff’s department.  While a deputy sheriff, he had arrested Etcitty at least a half-dozen times for drunken driving.  While Gorman had a steady job with the sheriff’s department, Etcitty moved from job to job, losing one after another because of his affinity for the bottle.  The last time that Gorman had arrested Etcitty for driving under the influence, he had thrown a punch in Gorman’s direction.  That and the DUI bought Etcitty six months in the county jail.  There he swore to himself that he’d follow the Blessing Way and never drink again.

“Yah-te-hey,” replied Etcitty.  They both spoke in their native Navajo language.  Gorman, his hair fiercely intact, his face cut by the sun and wind, looked like a gourd that had gone a week too long from the vine with the paunch he had accumulated since the years they were together at the reservation high school in Shiprock.  Why was it that so many of the male Navajos dressed – in their cowboy hats, large silver belt buckles, and their cowboy boots – like their traditional adversary of the Southwestern Desert, the American cowboy?

“Still working at the Power Plant outside Farmington these days?”  He saw himself as Gorman saw him at that moment, a derelict of average height, his thick hair all awry, his wiry body not too steady on his two pins.  “Still being more a pain in the ass to yourself than to others?”

“I don’t know what you mean.  I’m a superintendent now at the Power Plant.  I haven’t missed a day in seven or eight years.”

“Not like the old days, huh?”

“Not like the old days.”

“You look a little rough standing there, Tom?”

“So what if I do?”  The deputy sheriff opened his door.  Stepping into a large puddle of water, he slipped, one knee of his sheriff’s pants going down in the muddy water.

“Do we get an encore, Johnny?” Gorman inquired of his subordinate, whom he introduced as Deputy Sheriff, John Begay.  The deputy sheriff’s complexion turned about as red as the water in the pothole.  “Quite a thundershower we had last night.”

“We needed the water.”

“Now, Tom, I’m afraid we came on business.”  Etcitty, perspiring in the merciless heat, and the humidity of the recent downpour, wiped his brow of perspiration.  His head throbbed more than ever.  “Where were you last night?”  No reply was forthcoming.  After giving Etcitty time to settle things in his head, Gorman said, “Surely you must know where you were last night?”

“I can’t remember.”

“If I had to guess, I’d say you were probably drunk.  You were probably driving your pickup.”

“I tell you I don’t remember.  I’ll admit I was drinking, but it was the first time in three or  four years.  I don’t see how any of it is your business.”

“We wouldn’t be out here if there wasn’t a man run over last night, Tom.  Were you driving?”

“I told you I can’t remember.”  The smell of horse dung and piñon hung in the hot air next to the paddock.

“Think hard, Tom.  John Brown was run over just a mile away on the highway.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You won’t mind then if the good deputy and I take a look at your pickup.”  Parked behind the house, on a slab of sandstone, was his half-ton, four-wheel drive Ford pickup, the red paint oxidized, especially on the hood.  They strode over to the front of the truck. Suddenly the three saw the right front headlight crushed like a piece of origami.  “When did that happen, Tom?”

“I don’t know.”  Gradually remembering the evening before, he remembered driving into Farmington to buy a fifth of whisky, consuming most of it in the shopping mall where the liquor store was posted.  But then it was blank.  Finally, he imagined driving through the rain and something like a forlorn mustang running in a herd crossing the highway.  He hit the horse’s muzzle as he jumped on the brakes, the Ford fishtailing in the rain on the state highway.

“What’s this?” said Gorman as he reached down to where the grill had been dented and there was the barest scrap of a denim piece of cloth hanging suspended from it.  “Brown was wearing a denim shirt last night when he was cut down, Tom.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to arrest you for vehicular homicide.”  Gorman read him his rights as he slipped his handcuffs on him.

Like a diver ascending to the surface, encountering the piece of denim on the grill of his pickup almost, but not quite brought the dark, subterranean memories of the desert rain the night before back to him.

Pushing his head into the Blazer, Gorman sat down next to him.

During the long ride into Shiprock, his head pounded and he felt the need to vomit, bring up all the liquor in him, all the evil he felt within himself.  How many rides had he had like this to the jail in the past?  Marrying Nora a year after he graduated from high school, he began his drinking seriously, in binges between working various construction projects in the Four Corners Region of the Great Southwestern Desert of America.  He would work four or five days in a row, whether it was pouring asphalt on the roadway or hanging from an oil derrick, when his labor’s schedule would be interrupted by the bottle.  And when Nora tried to intercede, all she’d get for her effort was the back of his hand.  How long had it gone on?  Eight years?  Ten?  In the jail at Window Rock, the light finally shone, and he quit his drinking.  All those years of sobriety and now this.

Where was the Blessing Way in all this?  The more he tried, the more he failed.  He had tried.  He had tried so hard.

 

By Joseph Dylan

 

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