The sheets are dirty. An Indian Health Service hospital in the early sixties. On this reservation or that reservation. Any reservation, a particular reservation. Antiseptic, cinnamon and danker odors. Anonymous cries up and down the hallways. Linoleum floors swabbed with gray water. Mop smelling like old sex. Walls painted white a decade earlier. Now yellowed and peeling. Old Indian woman in a wheelchair singing traditional songs to herself, tapping a rhythm on her armrest, right index finger tapping, tapping. Pause. Tap, tap. A phone ringing loudly from behind a thin door marked private. Twenty beds available, twenty beds occupied. Waiting room where a young Indian man sits on a couch and holds his head in his hands. Nurses’ lounge, two doctors’ offices and a scorched coffee pot. Old Indian man, his hair bright white and unbraided, pushing his IV bottle down the hallway. He is barefoot and confused, searching for a pair of moccasins he lost when he was twelve years old. Donated newspapers and magazines stacked in bundles, months and years out of date, missing pages. In one of the exam rooms, an Indian family of four, mother, father, son, daughter, all coughing blood quietly into handkerchiefs. The phone still ringing behind the private door. A cinder-block building, thick windows that distort the view, pine trees, flagpole. A 1957 Chevy parked haphazardly, back door flung open, engine still running, back seat damp. Empty now.
The Indian woman on the table in the delivery room is very young, just a child herself. She is beautiful, even in the pain of labor, the contractions, the sudden tearing. When John imagines his birth, his mother is sometimes Navajo. Other times she is Lakota. Often she is of the same tribe as the last Indian woman he has seen on television. Her legs tied in stirrups. Loose knots threatening to unravel. The white doctor has his hands inside her. Blood everywhere. The nurses work at mysterious machines. John’s mother is tearing her vocal cords with the force of her screams. Years later she still speaks in painful whispers. But during his birth she is so young, barely into her teens, and the sheets are dirty.
The white doctor is twenty-nine years old. He has grown up in Iowa or Illinois, never seeing an Indian in person until he arrives at the reservation. His parents are poor. Having taken a government scholarship to make his way through medical school, he now has to practice medicine on the reservation in exchange for the money. This is the third baby he has delivered here. One white, two Indians. All of the children are beautiful.
John’s mother is Navajo or Lakota. She is Apache or Seminole. She is Yakama or Spokane. Her dark skin contrasts sharply with the white sheets, although they are dirty. She pushes when she should be pushing. She stops pushing when they tell her to stop. With clever hands, the doctor turns John’s head to the correct position. He is a good doctor.
The doctor has fallen in love with Indians. He thinks them impossibly funny and irreverent. During the hospital staff meetings all of the Indians sit together and whisper behind their hands. There are two white doctors on staff, though only one is on duty at any particular time. There are no Indian doctors, but a few of the nurses and most of the administrative staff are Indian. The doctor often wishes he could sit with the Indians and whisper behind his hand. But he is a good doctor and maintains a personable and professional distance. He misses his parents, who still live in Iowa or Illinois, and often calls them and sends postcards of beautiful, generic landscapes.
The doctor’s hands are deep inside John’s mother, who is only fourteen and bleeding profusely where they have cut her to make room for John’s skull. The sheets were dirty before the blood, but her vagina will heal. She is screaming, of course, because the doctor could not give her painkiller. She had arrived at the hospital too far into labor. The Chevy is still running outside, rear door flung open, back seat damp. The driver is in the waiting room. He holds his head in his hands.
‘Are you the father?’ a nurse asks the driver.
‘No, I’m the driver. She was walking here when I picked her up. She was hitchhiking. I’m just her cousin. I’m just the driver.’
The phone behind the private door is still ringing. John’s mother pushes one last time, and he slides into the good doctor’s hands. Afterbirth. The doctor clears John’s mouth. John inhales deeply, exhales, cries. The old Indian woman in the wheelchair stops singing. She hears a baby crying. She stops her tapping to listen. She forgets why she is listening, then returns to her own song and the tapping, tapping. Pause. Tap, tap. The doctor cuts the umbilical cord quickly. A nurse cleans John, washes away the blood, the remains of the placenta, the evidence. His mother is crying.
‘I want my baby. Give me my baby. I want to see my baby. Let me hold my baby.’
The doctor moves to comfort John’s mother. The nurse swaddles John in blankets, takes him from the delivery room and carries him past the old Indian man who is dragging his IV down the hallway and looking for his long-lost moccasins. John is carried outside. The flag hangs uselessly on its pole. No wind. The smell of pine. Inside the hospital John’s mother has fainted. The doctor holds her hand, convinces himself that he loves her. He remembers the family of four coughing blood into handkerchiefs in the exam room. The doctor is afraid of them.
With John in her arms, the nurse stands in the parking lot. She is white or Indian. She watches the horizon. Blue sky, white clouds, bright sun. The slight whine of a helicopter in the distance. Then the violent what-what of the blades as it passes overhead, hovers briefly and lands a hundred feet away. In the waiting room the driver lifts his head from his hands when he hears the helicopter. He wonders if there is a war beginning.
A man in a blue jumpsuit steps from the helicopter. Head ducked and body bent, the man runs toward the nurse. His features are hidden behind the face shield of his helmet. The nurse meets him halfway and hands John over. The jumpsuit man covers John’s face completely, protecting him from the dust that the helicopter has kicked up. The sky is very blue. Specific birds hurl away from the flying machine. These birds are indigenous to that reservation, wherever it is. They do not live anywhere else. They have purple-tipped wings and tremendous eyes, or red bellies and small eyes. The nurse waves goodbye as the jumpsuit man runs back to the helicopter. She shuts the rear door of the Chevy, reaches through the driver’s open window and turns the ignition key. The engine shudders to a stop. She pauses briefly at the door before she walks back inside the hospital.
The jumpsuit man holds John close to his chest as the helicopter rises. Suddenly, as John imagines it, this is a war. The gunman locks and loads, strafes the reservation with explosive shells. Indians hit the ground, drive their cars off roads, dive under flimsy kitchen tables. A few Indians, two women and one man, continue their slow walk down the reservation road, unperturbed by the gunfire. They have been through much worse. The what-what of the helicopter blades. John is hungry and cries uselessly. He cannot be heard over the roar of the gun, the chopper. He cries anyway. This is all he knows to do. Back at the clinic his mother has been sedated. She sleeps in the delivery room while the doctor holds her hand. The doctor finds he cannot move. He looks down at his hand wrapped around her hand. White fingers, brown fingers. He wonders at their difference. The phone behind the private door stops ringing. Gunfire in the distance.
The helicopter flies for hours, it could be days, crosses desert, mountain, freeway. Flies over the city. Seattle. The skyscrapers, the Space Needle, water everywhere. Thin bridges running between islands. John is still crying. The gunner does not fire, but his finger is lightly touching the trigger. He is ready for the worst. John can feel the distance between the helicopter and the ground below. He stops crying. He loves the distance between the helicopter and the ground. He feels he may fall but he somehow loves that fear of falling. He wants to fall. He wants the jumpsuit man to release him and let him fall from the helicopter, down through the clouds, past the skyscrapers and the Space Needle. But the jumpsuit man holds him tightly, and John does not fall. He wonders if he will ever fall.
The helicopter circles downtown Seattle, moves east past Lake Washington and Mercer Island and hovers over Bellevue. The pilot searches for the landing area. Five acres of green, green grass. A large house. Swimming pool. A man and woman waving. Home. The pilot lowers the chopper and sets down gracefully. Blades making a storm of grass particles and hard-shelled insects. The gunner’s eyes are wide open, scanning the tree line. He is ready for anything. The jumpsuit man slides the door open with one arm and holds John in the other. Noise, heat. John cries again, louder than before, wanting to be heard. Home. The jumpsuit man steps down and runs across the lawn. The man and woman are still waving. They are white and handsome. He wears a gray suit and colorful tie. She wears a red dress with large black buttons.
John is crying when the jumpsuit man hands him to the white woman, Olivia Smith. The white man in the gray suit, Daniel Smith, grimaces briefly then smiles. Olivia Smith pulls her shirt and bra down. She has large, pale breasts with pink nipples. John’s birth mother has small, brown breasts and brown nipples. John knows there is a difference. He takes the white woman’s right nipple in his mouth. He pulls at her breast. It is empty. Daniel Smith wraps his left arm around his wife’s shoulders. He grimaces and smiles again. Olivia and Daniel Smith look at the jumpsuit man, who is holding a camera. Flash, flash. Click of the shutter. Whirr of advancing film. All of them wait for the photograph to form, for light to emerge from shadow.
John attended St Francis Catholic School from the very beginning. His shoes always black topsiders polished clean. His black hair very short, nearly a crew-cut, just like every other boy in school. He was the only Indian in the school but he had friends, handsome white boys who were headed off to college. John would never speak to any of them after graduation, besides the one or two he came across in a supermarket, movie theater, restaurant.
‘John, buddy,’ the white boys always said. ‘How you doing? God, what has it been? Five, six years? It’s good to see you.’
John could step outside himself during those encounters. At first he listened to himself say the right things, respond in the right way. ‘I’m good. Working hard? Nah. Hardly working!’ He laughed appropriately. Promised to keep in touch. Shared a nostalgic moment. Commented on the eternal beauty of the Catholic girls from way back when. Occasionally he could not stand to see his friends from high school, and more and more their voices and faces were painful to him. He began to ignore their greetings, act like he had never seen them before and walk past them.
John had danced with a few white girls in high school. Mary, Margaret, Stephanie. He had fumbled with their underwear in the back seats of cars. John knew their smell, a combination of perfume, baby powder, sweat and sex. A clean smell on one level, a darker odor beneath. Their breasts were small and perfect. John was always uncomfortable during his time with the girls and he was never sorry when it was over. He was impatient with them, unsure of their motives and vaguely insulting. The girls expected it. It was high school, and boys were supposed to act that way. Inside, John knew that he was simple, shallow and less than real.
‘What are you thinking?’ the girls always asked John. But John knew the girls really wanted to tell John what they were thinking. John’s thoughts were merely starting points for a longer conversation. His thoughts were no longer important when the girls launched into monologues about their daily activities. They talked about mothers and fathers, girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, pets, clothes and a thousand other details. John felt insignificant at those times and retreated into a small place inside of himself until the girls confused his painful silence with rapt interest.
The girls’ fathers were always uncomfortable when they first met John and grew more irritated as he continued to date Mary, Margaret or Stephanie. The relationships began and ended quickly. A dance or two, a movie, a hamburger, a few hours in a friend’s basement with generic rock music playing softly on the radio, cold fingers on warm skin.
‘I just don’t think it’s working out,’ she would say to John, who understood.
He could almost hear the conversations that had taken place.
‘Hon,’ a father would say to his daughter. ‘What was that boy’s name?’
‘Which boy, Daddy?’
‘That dark one.’
‘Oh, you mean John. Isn’t he cute?’
‘Yes, he seems like a very nice young man. You say he’s at St Francis? Is he a scholarship student?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. Does it matter?’
‘Well, no. I’m just curious, hon. By the way, what is he? I mean, where does he come from?’
‘He’s Indian, Daddy.’
‘From India? He’s a foreigner?’
‘No, Daddy, he’s Indian from here. You know, American Indian. Like bows and arrows and stuff. Except he’s not like that. His parents are white.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Daddy, he’s adopted.’
‘Oh. Are you going to see him again?’
‘I hope so. Why?’
‘Well, you know. I just think. Well, adopted kids have so many problems adjusting to things, you know. I’ve read about it. They have self-esteem problems. I just think, I mean, don’t you think you should find somebody more appropriate?’
The door would click shut audibly. Mary, Margaret or Stephanie would come to school the next day and give John the news. The daughters would never mention their fathers. There were a few white girls who dated John precisely because they wanted to bring home a dark boy to their uptight parents. Through all of it John had repeatedly promised himself that he would never be angry. He didn’t want to be angry. He wanted to be a real person. He wanted to control his emotions so he often had to swallow his anger. Once or twice a day he felt the need to run and hide. In the middle of a math class or a history exam he would get a bathroom pass and quickly leave the classroom. His teachers were always willing to give him a little slack. They knew he was adopted, an Indian orphan, and was leading a difficult life.
His teachers gave him every opportunity, and he responded well. If John happened to be a little frail, well, that was perfectly understandable, considering his people’s history. All that alcoholism and poverty, the lack of God in their lives. In the bathroom John would lock himself inside a stall and fight against his anger. He’d bite his tongue, his lips, until sometimes they would bleed. His arms, legs and lower back tensed. His eyes closed tightly. He was grinding his teeth. One minute, two, five, and he would be fine. He could flush the toilet to make his visit seem normal, then slowly wash his hands and return to the classroom. His struggles with his anger increased in intensity and frequency until he was requesting a bathroom pass on a daily basis during his senior year. But nobody noticed. In truth, nobody mentioned any strange behavior they may have witnessed. John was a trailblazer, a nice trophy for St Francis, a successfully integrated Indian boy.
‘Integration’ is taken from Sherman Alexie’s second novel, Indian Killer, published by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Photograph © Rory MacLeod