"What are you guys doing here?"
I walked out of the Arrowhead Inn with three Hurricane High Gravities and saw the group circled around Robert. He said that he had quit drinking for awhile, but then his brother died and he lives here now. He was fascinated with my wardrobe. On lukewarm days I wear a suit jacket that I got at thrift store in downtown Lincoln and a pseudo-beret that I bought at Target. On cold days I wear a genuine FC Juventes scarf that I found lying outside of Planned Parenthood and I used to have this fabulous little jeweled plastic cross that I wore on special occasions but where was I?
"You're bound to get jacked wearing that hat up here" Robert said. He asked me if I was Bon Scott, over and over again, all night. He kept laughing at his joke. He had Bon Scott confused with Brian Johnson, by the way. Scott never wore a hat. He did drink himself to death, which is quite common and doesn't typically garner much attention.
"What are you doing here" he asked, all night. "We seek truth" "Guerrilla journalism" etc. Robert is forty seven, one year short of the reservations average life span. Too old to buy our nonsense.
I had thought up a cover story for us in the days before the trip. We would be outreach ministers for Campus Crusade for Christ. We would be there to study the effect of neo-paganism on alcoholism in Native communities. I would wear a suit and a tie and a Geddy Lee pony tail and generally make myself look convincingly Protestant. Dan and I thought it was hilarious. The utter stupidity of it became clear at our first human contact on the reservation and we never used a cover story. My god it was a profoundly stupid idea.
We offered Robert the towels of the oppressors that we had taken from the Gordon hotel. He politely declined. "I know hot shit when I see it" he said. The next day Paul took me aside to tell me that towels are a lot like blankets, and that maybe giving them away to Natives wasn't such good symbolism after all.
"A sort of spring break parody if you will" I said. "Well, what are you doing here?"
said Robert. We finally convinced him that we were on some sort of inquisitive journey. Serving no one and nothing but ourselves but how does that delegitimize anything? The curiosity was real. The compassion came in ebbs and flows but the curiosity was real. "We just wanna see what it's like here."
They're mine now. Come and get me.
"What do you want to know?" We really should have thought of specific questions, but there's a reason Dan and I dropped out of J-school, straight line and a goal.
"Sooo, Robert, had did Lakotas deal with tornadoes before the whites came and, yeah, before the whites came?"
"In the time you've been here, has it gotten better or worse on Pine Ridge?"
"Shit. it's gotten worse, the kids here today all think they're gangsters or something."
This is true, Robert is acquainted with Warren and the boys, doesn't think much of them. Generation gaps are always about culture and personality. Some people justify them with moralistic language, especially in small communities where every relationship becomes exaggerated. It means nothing.
We had begun drinking the Hurricane in the local fashion, "the Lakota way."
"What do you wanna know? There's fucking ghosts out here.
"Well, you were around in the seventies when all of that went down right?"
"Can you tell us anything about that."
"Shit, I was a kid. (You don't know shit you aimless white boys.)
"Naw, for real, there's ghost out here, we call the Nuggis, evil spirits." You don't want to fuck with the Nuggis out here. You wanna see some shit? You wanna see what Whiteclay is like? You spend the night here."
He talked briefly about drinking in blizzards, gathered around a trash-can fire with his friends. He spoke of a friend who went to sleep in a field and was found dead the next day. Constant drunkenness. No medical care, ever, this happens all of the time. "He just drank himself out."
"Rushville cops are assholes" "We stomped the shit out of one this one time."
"Say what now Robert?"
"For real, there's was a kid who got hit by a car, right in front of the mission. He's a Nuggi now. You can hear him bouncing a basketball on the street. That's what he was doing when he died."
"Right. About those Rushville cops..."
"Heh, for real though. This shit is real, there's a woman with no face out here, she comes out at night. You wanna see some shit? You wanna see how Whiteclay really is?
Let me show you this house. I don't usually go there because, shit I ain't that fucking brave you know,(grunt-giggles all around) but naww, let me show you this house."
A boy who bounced a basketball on the highway. A woman with no face who dressed sort of Victorian style (or maybe not, he wasn't clear on this) and came out at night. These are Robert's main Nuggis. Is this really all they do Robert? I am well versed in underground Catholicism and whispered rumors of Satanic sacrifice and junior-high smoking-weed-out-of-a-pop-can mysticism. I am not impressed by the mere existence of spirits. The woman doesn't have a face you say? Well, she's dead you know. And what makes them evil anyway? The kid likes basketball. Give him a Nuggi hoop.
We came to a windowless white house house just east off the highway that smelled of piss from five feet away. "I feel them in here."
The floor was broken drywall and emptied hurricanes and glass. Robert walked in, than Dan, than me, than Becky, (offered my hand to guide her over threshold, politely refused) and Paul. I could have crushed one of the support beams with a light squeeze. Is that rat shit I smell? A tattered ex-blanket that hasn't been used in at least ten years. I shouldn't assume that.
We were all more intimidated than we let on, of course, staying poker faced in front of, each other.
"You wanna see another house." I don't go there. They'll kill you at night there. But if you wanna see truth. You spending the night here?"
"What do you think Josh?"
"What do you think Dan?"
"I think I wanna see how this goes down dude."
"Well, if we're not driving back, might as well drink more."
"Yeah, yeah we'll get to that."
This house was about thirty yards off the highway right up against the state line. Drywall, glass, a void in what used to be the dining room, this is where they lived.
Dan, Becky, and I made our way onto the beams lying under the former floor. They groaned. We crawled back out.
What interests me the most about the Nuggis is the pure anti-logic of it. This man was drinking himself to death, getting quite close now. He knew it, didn't care. These houses, these rotting piles that would collapse in a stiff breeze. these breeding grounds for tetanus or Hantavirus or the plague, were dangerous because of the Nuggis. These ghosts who passed the time with boring, meaningless compulsions. The ghosts of dying middle-aged men who have never left the rez and get giddy at the thought of a trip to Gordon. The ghosts of giving up on trying to look for jobs that aren't there and sitting in front of the TV, if they have one. The ghosts of going to Whiteclay at the crack of dawn, why not?, and staying there until it's time to tell the Sheriff to bring a body bag. The faceless woman, no one knows who she is.
"You wanna see where I live? Let me show you how we live."
Robert's shack is another thirty yards farther out, carpet for a door. A torn American flag over the window, a mattress so badly decayed that the entire middle is gone, covered with filthy sheets decorated in the same 70's shit-rainbow style that I slept on when my mother was still single. It smelled the same as the other two ruined houses. "This is how we live. Robert's roommate was there,sleeping on a mattress in the same condition. mattress in the same condition. We offered him a drink (Or rather, Robert offered for us) he downed half the can and went back to sleep.