October 23rd, 2009

The summer of 1968 is hot, humid, and marked with a kaleidoscope of electric storms. Lying on the hood of the Plymouth at Herrick’s Lake, Anaquad and I count the jagged streaks of lightning as they strike the lake.  One night, we watch a giant red pine on the edge of the steepest granite glacier bluff join with the sky’s fire, ignite and topple into the murky green water below. The electric storms lights our naked bodies. We are not afraid, at least not of lightning.

From numerous hours spent lying in the sun with him, reading teenage girl magazines and applying suntan oil, I turn dark.

“Brune brûlée,” my mother calls me. “You have ruined your sensitive skin, ma chère.”

I feel “burned brown” when I hold my arm next to her ivory-colored one, bleached daily with a homemade lemon-rosewater lotion. What she doesn’t say and I hear anyway, is “Let it fade, you’ll look less Indian.” While my skin darkens, my brown hair goes another way and, by August, it is shot through with red and white gold streaks, aided by hidden sprays of “Summer Blond.” It looks like it was struck by the night lightning. Unlike mine, Anaquad’s skin and hair move together in the same dark direction, deepening in color and intensity.

“White girl, brown boy.” We hear it more than once that summer. First in an inquisitive way from my assistant manager at Jewel, who my co-workers tell me passed his time watching Anaquad and I neck in the Jewel parking lot.

“Just exactly what is he? Do you know anything about his family?” the store manager asks.

White girl, brown boy.

It doesn’t fit with the way I feel when he and I are together. More and more, I’m starting to feel my Indian blood. Before Anaquad, I worried about my Indian blood, secretly believing that it is the reason I am not more popular. It isn’t that I want to hang out with the popular kids, I don’t. But I want to be wanted by them. The kids that I work with at Jewel are far better companions, working towards college and often helping support their families while they are in high school. But it sure seems like the popular ones know how to party and have fun.

I also start paying attention to different things my parents say. After the near-drowning at Herrick’s Lake, Dad starts talking some about Angeline, comparing me to her. Beginning when we are snowshoeing, “You’ve powerful legs, graceful like her.” And swimming, “You’ve got it – her coordinated stroke.” His words help me feel better about myself. I know that I don’t look like my mother, whose petite, shapely, blonde French beauty evokes more street admiration than my muscular, athletic frame ever will. I also realize that I don’t look like Dad, whose tan skin and straight black hair attract querying looks and sometimes disparaging comments even in his well-chosen business suits for his work as an attorney. I’m a mix. But what is that? The people I see handle it differently. I know that Mom is Métis, part Cree too, but I can see that she is trying hard to make her Indian part as small as possible. I guess that she is using a hair dye stronger than the temporary rinse that I spray on. Dad’s Indian part looks stronger, at least from the outside, but then he doesn’t talked about it with me a lot, at least not until recently. That summer, we drive to the Métis colony in western Illinois where he was raised by Angeline for the funeral of his aunt, Madeline Junot. I am watching him, and then, Alloii… the death chant starts and Dad begins to cry.  No sound with the tears other than his baritone voice merging with the others. It is here that I become aware that Dad knows all the chants—English, French, and that funny language he calls Prairie Tongue, the words of the Métis—and Mom doesn’t. He spoke English with a strange accent he struggled to hide until he took a course at the local college when I was in Junior High.

Sometimes I believe that my confusion about who I am reflects their confusion. Do they feel they had to choose, too? But then, how confused am I? Other times I relate my mystification to loyalty struggles when I see Mom as French and Dad as Indian. But that doesn’t work either. It simplifies something that isn’t easy.

Being with Anaquad calms me. I feel I can talk to him about everything—French, Indian, Mom, Dad… anything. Even though we look different, I feel we are the same. But even so, things are changing.

Our sexual lives are really changing. Now, we lie next to each other without touching by mutual agreement—a period of temporary chastity—in order to take the time to learn more about each other, mostly his idea. We also talk non-stop. I reveal my struggles with my mother. Why is she so Catholic and, even more important, why does she expect me to believe what the bishops told to her? Don’t I have a choice in what I think? Maybe it isn’t the sex part that she hates, but the fact that Anaquad is Indian. Sometimes, I talk about my dad. I hope that he approves of my relationship with Anaquad, even though he only mentioned it once, when he asks me if I am being safe. He never said what he meant by safe. If he meant no-baby-safe, I am fine there. If he meant guarding-my-heart-safe, I am not fine, not fine at all. I do not feel safe. No, it isn’t lightning I am worried about, but a lot of other things. Ever since my dad’s near drowning, I am scared that he will die… a car crash, a heart attack, even another drowning… He will die, and I will be left with my mother. I will be forced to become a devout Catholic, maybe even give up sex forever and become a nun. Mom will want that, and I will resign myself to it. Maybe that’s why I am starting to hold back now. Anaquad gently jokes with me about my fears, telling me that he is sure I will make a loyal nun, but he knows that I can never be celibate. He promises to visit me in the convent. Some days the convent sounds less risky than being in love with Anaquad.

Anaquad’s new-found asceticism is also associated with a growing passion for politics—Indian politics. He tells me about some of the leaders he has met, young leaders, names I have heard from my dad who does some tribal pro-bono work—Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt. Anaquad says they are going to bring power back to the tribes. The old leaders are useless. They lost everything. I listen, but don’t feel like I can speak. I’m not sure what I’ve lost. Anaquad describes the Sioux reservation where he spent his childhood with his parents and sister. Like a lot of Indian families, they came to Chicago and other Midwestern cities to find work and off-reservation schools for their kids.

Finally late one night, after the sky’s psychedelic lightning show at Herrick’s Lake, Anaquad talks about his family. Every time I asked before, he refused, “Don’t, Elisabeth.” Now I learn why.

At night he tells me his father drinks bottles of home-brewed beer made in a backyard still. Usually he sleeps outside, next to his empties. Some nights he stumbles inside, each time ripping his knuckles on the ragged screen door that blocks his path. Seeing his hand cut, he rages at his son and wife, smacking their bodies with his bleeding fist.

That night, Anaquad tells me that he just punched his father for the first time. “Self-defense, Elisabeth. That man thinks he can pound me? I’m not gonna take that shit.” The next night at the lake, he discloses that it was “more than a hit.” “I was on top of him and I started belting him until he puked up all that beer. I guess I wanted to pound it out of him. But I couldn’t stop myself. And I didn’t want to.” At the end of it, his father lay in a crumpled pile on the kitchen linoleum. From far way, he heard his sister’s voice, “Anaquad…you’ll kill him! Don’t! He’s our father.” Lying in my arms, Anaquad tells me that if she hadn’t called to him, he knew what he would have done—slain his father.

This year we are both learning that fathers can die. My father’s father, Joe—a guy I’d never met, died in the early spring of liver cancer, an old man. Not too hard to understand that. Old people do die. And Dad told me enough to let me know that my grandfather drank to the point where he no longer cared about himself or those around him. Then, in April, Martin Luther King Jr. is shot and killed. In June, Robert Kennedy. So he and I are also learning that not-so-old men die.  And, that summer, we discover that teenagers like us die, too.

In August, the month of shooting stars, four months after we start dating, the Democratic convention is held in Chicago. Anaquad wants to go. He tells me kids will be coming from all over… young people, like us, who want to change things… not like the students in our high school. These kids want to change the world, and they know that not just men, but boys are dying—by the thousands. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam is mounted that spring. And it is brought home by television news: Spinning helicopters, exploding bombs, burning jungles and contorted Asian faces sharing their final grimaces with us, their enemies, thousands of miles away while we calmly eat our dinners. I listen to Anaquad carefully, feeling like I still belong in the group of kids who only want sex. He puts me with those who want to change things. I ask him what I have ever tried to change. He reminds me that I spoke out for free speech in our high school when “Spoon River” was censored. I listen to him, but am not convinced. Wanting to speak my part as it was written for our high school play and going to a rally in Chicago to change the world are not exactly the same thing. Anaquad tells me that he is going to this convention, even if I’m not. And, although he doesn’t say it, I can tell that he feels like I’m letting him down.

The morning before the Democratic convention begins, Anaquad and I are hanging out in the Jewel parking lot and hear our favorite disc jockey at WLS announce that a seventeen-year-old Sioux Indian from South Dakota, Dean Johnson, has been shot by the Chicago police. The police say that he pulled a gun. Though our transistor radio is loaded with static, the message finally comes through – the kid is dead. Anaquad starts shaking and talking about needing to do something. His left arm, the one that can not stop spasming when he is anxious, is trembling. He and two of his friends decide to drive to Chicago right away. I stay home, waiting by the telephone. An hour later, Anaquad calls and tells me that he and his friends are on Wells Street standing guard with another young Sioux at the spot where Dean Johnson was shot.

He tries to get me to go again. “Shit, Elisabeth, your Dad is Indian, you need to be here, tonight. There is going to be a march – a memorial – don’t you want to be part of this?” I don’t. I’m scared, but I don’t want to tell him that. I hang up the phone and keep listening to the radio. Let him think whatever he wants. My teen station is now running hourly updates on the Chicago scene.

By now, Democrats, demonstrations and teenagers are converging on Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley is threatening to bring in the National Guard, thousands of troops. That afternoon I take my transistor to Jewel Foods, playing it low in the back of the deli while I slice the dyed-pink sandwich meat, folding it in neat packages. But I can’t stop thinking about Anaquad. I decide to leave my afternoon shift early. I get in the car and drive, still listening to my transistor and wishing we had a car radio. Finally, I end up at the Northwestern Train Station. The 6:03 Express is on time, just 41 minutes out of Chicago’s loop, and Dad is on it. I guessed that he might take the earlier train that evening, and he doesn’t act surprised that I am there to pick him up. Usually he walks over to the Jewel Parking lot and waits for me in our shared Plymouth.

He gets in the passenger side and rolls down the car window, “So, where are we going?”

The radio is louder now as the Mayor’s voice announces that 6,000 National Guardsmen have been mobilized and are practicing riot-control maneuvers.

He nods at the radio propped on the dashboard and asks, “Is that where we’re going?”

I shrug, but start driving toward Pearl Road, the fastest link to the expressway. Funny, I knew he would go with me, but I didn’t know how to ask him. I am really quiet.

“They’re checking ID’s, Elisabeth.”

“I have my driver’s license.”

“That may not be enough. What’s up?”

Now it is my time to nod at the radio, and say, “There’s going to be a riot.”

“That’s what I think, too. So tell me why we’re in a car driving there?” He knows. I know. But he is going to make me tell him.

“Anaquad and his friends are having a vigil at the spot where the police killed Dean Johnson.” I know I won’t have to explain to him who Dean Johnson is. That he will know. I add to myself… Dad wouldn’t have done anything, but he would know, at least. Maybe I am too hard on him? What can be done? He is coming with me, almost no questions asked. I watch him open a Chicago street map that he carries in the glove compartment.

“Do you know if Anaquad was there when they shot him, Elisabeth?”

“He wasn’t; he and his friends went over there later, they’re keeping some sort of honor guard.”

His eyes narrow; he seems to be counting things. “How long ago did you talk to him?”

“Three hours, maybe.”

“Well, if we’re lucky, he’s not in jail yet, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

We drive silently, listening to a replayed description of Dean’s shooting, and the evolving plans for the police… riot gear, tear gas, bayonets, billyclubs…

Looking over at my Dad, I can see that he is tired. He has taken off his sunglasses and is rubbing his eyes. “Have you called Anaquad’s parents? And your mom?”

“No, I didn’t think of it.”

“We can do it from my office.”

“I want to drive to Wells Street.”

“We can try, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to. They were already checking ID’s outside my building, and that’s blocks away.”

“So, what can we do at your office?” Now that I finally have the courage to go, I’m not going to be held back.

“We can start by calling the police station and get a list of who’s been arrested.”

“You think he’s going to be arrested?”

“I think an Indian boy’s on the top of their list, Elisabeth.”

“So what do we do?”

“Bail him out, if he’s not dead.”

The rest of the ride is quiet. We make good time because no one is driving that direction. WLS has stopped their rock music and now is carrying continuous news warning us about a “state of emergency.” About that, they are right; Chicago is a state of emergency.

My heart is in a state of emergency, too. Bail him out if… if… he’s not dead. They have killed one Indian boy already. They could easily kill another, and it could be Anaquad. Out loud, I say what I am thinking, “I should have gone with him.”

“You think that would have stopped anything from happening, Elisabeth? Don’t fool yourself.”

I am hesitant to say more, sensing that my father and I are moving into a land that we stay purposefully away from. I go ahead anyway, “Dad, I look white. I feel white. If I were there, a white girl… it might be different.”

He says nothing, but he looks unbelievably sad. “You do look white, Elisabeth,” my father speaks quietly. He turns down the radio and I strain to listen, “but if you think your looking white would stop these police, you’re naïve.”

“Dad, it might be different if I were there…” I continue.

“Yeah, you’d be a white girl in jail with a bunch of half-breeds and full-bloods. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t kill you, but they could make you watch them kill your boyfriend right in front of you.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know. I raised you white, but I don’t want you to be stupid and get hurt.” I am getting frustrated with him.  He always seems so rational, choosing the best option.  White is safe, but I’m not sure I wanted safe anymore.

“So you raised me white because you thought it would be safer for me.”

“It is safer, Elisabeth.”

“I don’t think so. Anaquad thinks I’m a complete coward.”

“Doesn’t surprise me.”

I am hurt. “Why did you say that?”

“Elisabeth, I’m sorry. I wanted you to be safe. Maybe I think I’m the coward. Look, you’re no coward… you’re here.”

Yeah, I am here, but that doesn’t mean I’m not petrified. I notice police blockades ahead, so I swerve to make a sharp turn and exit the expressway. The city’s streets are deserted. No police, no pedestrians, no one at all. Dad dispatches directions calmly, “A right two blocks up, left at the underpass,” but I notice that the sweat running off his hands is smudging the ink on the faded street map. His relaxed attitude is a front; he is scared, too. What are we doing here? He keeps giving me directions and I keep driving until we park in a deserted lot on Lower Wacker at the edge of the river.

Nearly invisible at dusk, the river is recognizable by its offensive smell of rotting garbage. Ignoring the staggering heat and humidity, Dad puts on and buttons his top-coat, pulls out his pocket comb and slicks back his hair, angling his summer straw hat with the plaid band on his head. He hands me the comb, inspecting my peasant blouse and skirt. He hands me one of my mother’s cardigan sweaters from the back of the Plymouth and waits while I put it on before he links his arm through mine. Just a father and a daughter on a summer night stroll. We follow the river for a couple blocks, passing groups of teenagers, running. I can hear a screeching whistle from the elevated train above us. Finally Dad stops and points…

“Wells Street is up there, Elisabeth. I think that’s where the shooting happened. He told you he was there, right? I’ll go up and check… stay here.”

“Dad, I think we should stay together.” I’m not sure whom I am more worried about… him or me.

“Okay, but if we get stopped by the police, let me talk to them. If we get separated, you know where my office is. There’s a watchman on the ground floor, usually sleeping, but not tonight. Have him open my office for you.”

Trailing behind him as we leave the river and walk toward Wells, I stumble on the damp stone stairway, slimy with moss and reach for his arm again. We aren’t going to be separated.

The streets have a deranged carnival atmosphere, deserted of cars. Groups of people, even adults in suits with convention badges, are running quickly through the streets. Though just past dusk, it seems very dark, a darkness that is broken only by sudden flashes of light. Dad, silently, points to broken streetlights. We wait, hidden behind a parked car, until most of the people are gone, and then step into Wells Street. Looking left, I can see searchlights flooding several blocks away.

Dad speaks softly, “That’s where they shot him, Elisabeth.”

Together, Dad and I stand in the middle of Wells Street. I feel close to him, even more than when we linked arms at the river.

“I’m glad you came with me, Dad.”

“So am I,” he answers.

We start walking toward the lights.

“What do you think is down there?”

“I don’t know.”

“You… don’t think Anaquad is dead?”

“No, I don’t, Elisabeth.”

I can hear him breathing. We are close now, only two blocks away. Still no people. I keep staring ahead at a gray mist, growing thicker now, a cloud gliding toward us, hanging above us, below the stars.

Raaataa taaa Raaataa taa. Sharp noises… maybe gunshots? The cloud is slowly sinking, blanketing us. More noises… stomping… marching… then I see them, a wall of uniformed men… soldiers… police. Their faces are hidden by visored masks. They are moving toward us. In slow motion, Dad is turning toward me. I feel like I am underwater—dreaming

“Elisabeth, get down low! It’s tear gas – cover your face!”

The last thing I see before I pull Mom’s sweater over my eyes is Dad hooding his face under his seersucker jacket, his straw hat bouncing into the street, rolling toward the moving line of people. The fog has descended, bringing a thousand needles with it… pain. My bare shoulders and neck are burning.

Eyes blinded, I feel my Dad’s arms around me again, this time pushing me to the curb. I trip against it but he pulls me up. Then we are running. We cannot see, but we are running very fast.