Fiction by Damon McKinney
I worked my way through the crowded dance floor, passed the old high school heroes, forgotten football stars, and homecoming queens now strapped down to dead-end jobs, house payments, and different baby daddies. The country music, full of twang, grit, and red-blooded patriotism, blared across the bar and rattled the windows. Hank Williams Jr. sang about all his rowdy friends as I squeezed past the line dancers. The men were dressed in gaudy-multicolored western shirts and Levi jeans so heavily starched they could stand by themselves. And the women were dressed the same, except their jeans looked painted on and their hair was held up with Aqua net and broken dreams. I made it to the back of the country club and banged on the door marked “office.” I glanced up at the camera tucked away in the corner and gave a nod. I heard the door click open and left Jr. to finish his song.
Even with the heavy door closed behind me, I could still hear the country music. Songs of poverty, loveless sex, and forgotten times were the core tenants of this club. It’s what people around here wanted to listen and dance to. Plus, it was the only bar open on Sunday nights. It sat in a gray area of the county, just outside of city limits and too close to the city for county sheriffs to care. The only ones interested in the club were already boot scootin’ on the hardwood floor.
I sat across from the owner, Jack “Slim” Wilson. Behind Slim was a bank of camera monitors, each one focused on a different area of the club. The floor, the parking lot, and the back porch, and a few lesser-known areas were covered. An old neon sign flickered on one of the walls, a throwback to when this was just a rinky-dink hole in the wall. Opposite was an eternal blonde in a bikini advertising some sort of shitty beer that no one drank anymore. Even now, she looked tired of being here, a tacked-up reminder of when men were men and the women knew it. Slim liked her too. He shuffled some papers over the desk and finally looked up at me.
“Well,” Slim asked.
I tossed an envelope on his desk, a little too hard as it skidded across the wood top and knocked off a few of his papers. He shook his head and picked up the envelope. He thumbed through the stack of cash and pulled out a couple of hundreds. He pushed them towards me and dropped the envelope into a drawer.
“That it, or you need anything else,” I asked him as I stuffed the bills into my old wallet.
“Yeah, I’m gonna need you to take a drive for me tomorrow night. So, keep your pager on, and don’t keep me waiting again.”
“About that, I—”
“Look, I don’t want excuses, okay. Just keep it on,” he said with a hint of anger. He shifted in his chair and stared me in the eyes. “You’re the best runner I have, but I can’t have my guys ignoring me when I call, got it?”
“Sure Slim, I got it,” I said. The blonde looked down on me.
“Good, now get out of here.” Slim buzzed the door open. “And have Lois bring me a beer.”
I stood up and started to shake his hand. Slim reached out with his mangled right hand. Story goes that Slim fought some kid, who returned with a 410 shotgun. Kid blew off Slim’s ring finger, top of the first two fingers and somehow the blast twisted the little finger 90 degrees towards the thumb. Slim refused medical attention, so his hand healed a mess. It freaks people out when they shake hands with him, and he loves it.
Two quick hand pumps and I headed back into the bar to hear Conway singing about love.
I took the back roads home, mostly to avoid the cops waiting for the drunks, and to enjoy the night air. There was something about the country air, fresh and slightly dirty at the same time, especially after a small rain shower. Just enough rain to keep the dust down but not enough to wash out the roads. I like to hang my arm out the window and move it up and down like it was a separate thing, a bird flying with me. I breathed in the night air, filling my lungs with sweet, fresh, dry, and damp. If Heaven had a smell, I imagine it would be those Oklahoma dirt roads at night. There is a certain kind of peace driving home at night. The car slips and slides on the gravel, not really touching the dirt underneath. The moment of weightlessness as I hop over the rolling hills, my stomach flutters. The city lights are too far away to outshine the stars and it’s only out there, in the darkness, that I can see the constellations, Orion the hunter, the Big Dipper, and the Little Dipper and the Milky Way—reminding me how small I really am in the whole thing. I pull over and admire the beauty of it all, while I take a piss.
At exactly 9 in the morning, my beeper started vibrating in my pocket. He knew when I was up and he didn’t waste a minute of what he considered “his time.”
“No shit Slim, you’re the only one with this number, remember?”
“Get your ass over here, we’ve got places to be and people to see, remember?”
We drove for about an hour before Slim spoke up. “Heard Brick capped your cousin down in the City, that’s why you were late yesterday.”
“Yeah, in front of his momma no less. Transit cops took him down, but it was too late for my cuzzin,” I replied. “He chose that life.”
“Don’t do anything about it, but if you want, I can reach out to some guys I know in county.” Slim offered as some sort of condolences, but I know it’s about keeping his business on the downlow. He doesn’t need one of his runners getting arrested.
“Nah, I understand, besides, his gang has a longer reach than you do. No offense.” It’s true though, my cousin’s crew reaches all the way into Big Mack, the local supermax prison. Slim knows this too, in fact, he uses them from time to time. Muscle for hire kind of thing.
“How’s his mom? Cheryl? You know we used to run around together,” he asked as he lit a cigarette. Smoke swirls in the car then sucked out the windows. “Your mom too.”
“They’re fine, planning the funeral and all,” I said as I glance down at the speedometer, making sure I’m not speeding. “It’s gonna be in a few days, you can come.”
“Slow down, turn’s coming up.”
I waited in the car while Slim handled his business inside the dilapidated house. I kept the car running and looked out for anything out of place. In the country it doesn’t take much to be out of place. A few minutes passed and Slim came bounding out of the house with a backpack slung over his shoulder. All smiles. He smelled like weed as he plopped down in the car. I know he doesn’t smoke but someone inside was. I wrinkled my nose at him, and he lit another cigarette.
As we drove home, more silence filled the car.
He peeled off a couple hundred’s off his money roll and handed them to me. “Thanks for driving today. I needed the company and the clean car.”
“Come by the bar tomorrow, I wanna talk to you about something,” he said when he climbed out of my car.
“Sure, what time,” I asked as I stuffed the money into my jeans pocket.
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll be there all day,” he answered before he shut my door. He took a few steps towards his front door. “You did good today. And sorry about your cousin. Give your aunt my condolences, your mom too.” He turned around and waved bye with a dismissive gnarled hand.
I still know. Prayers are offered, tobacco placed down, and it begins. It isn’t about religion. What we practice isn’t religion per say but rather a reconnection to our ancestors and each other as a community. We eat traditional foods, from the homelands, from the old ways, from old wisdom. We drink water first, to cleanse our body and clear our minds. This is important. It reminds us that without water we will die. This is part of our connection to the land and the land to us. We are one. Food is passed from right to left, everything from corn soup, meat gravy, and pork with potatoes. Squash and corn, pecans in syrup, fry bread, braised meat, whole turkeys, and all manners of harvest from the forest. Plus, someone always brings a bucket of KFC. After the water, tea and lemonade is passed around. Soda too. Whatever you take you eat. It expected that you take at least a spoonful of everything passed around. We eat quickly and quietly. The lead me-me-she watches to see when it is time to pass tobacco around. Cigarettes. Like the food, at least take one puff, then you can hand it off to an elder. The cigarettes are lit by a ember from the cooks fire, from the earth to us. The lead man will thank the people who ate and the clan hosting the feast. The hosting clan does not eat, they are sacrificing for the people. If a veteran or an elder wants to tell a story they will be allowed to speak. Clans will hold feasts for welcoming Spring, for naming ceremonies, for giving back to other clans for past help, for a family in need. Once the cigarettes are smoked, it’s over. People will still meander around, help with the cleanup, and say their thanks for being invited. Once outside, the people will reconnect, talk, and gossip a bit. Community is reaffirmed, clans strengthened, and families grow closer.
Four days, that’s all we are given to send our loved one on their journey. From this world to the next. Four days. The day they die is considered the first. So really it’s three days but who’s counting.
It’ll be a closed casket, of course, he was shot in the face at point blank range. I’m sure the morticians did the best they could but even their skill wasn’t able to close the gaping maw that was his face. It was traumatic. To his mother, who cradled her dying son, to the officers who arrested the shooter, and to everyone in the bus station. The cleaners were still finding gray matter weeks later.
The second day is for doing the “white” things of a funeral. Choosing his clothes, making the necessary burial arrangements, picking out the coffin, and other minor bits of work. We sit with our dead, all day and night, until the burial day. I do this for him and his mother, out of respect. Plus it affords me time to say goodbye to him. His mother contacts the tribe and gets a burial plot with the rest of our family, or at least as close as he can be. We don’t have a family plot like some members, but we are all close together in the burial grounds.
Day three is for the community to pay their respects, if not to him, but to his mother. People stopping by, people who I haven’t seen since the last funeral, people I don’t know, and of course, his gang. I know a few of them, we used to be friends, but there is some hostility between the family and the gang. It was them who got him killed after all. Their “neighborhood” bullshit mentality consumed his life, wearing all red, throwing ridiculous hand signs, and all that other crap. We asked him why he did those things, and, he never really had an answer, or at least one he was willing to admit. Maybe it was the boredom of small-town living, or the lack of opportunity—same thing really—whatever it was drove him away from his family and people.
At midnight between day three and four, there is a ceremony held by our clan, the Bear Clan. We give back his Native name to the tribe. Now, I can’t tell you how or what happens, because reasons, but it is a holy moment for us.
Day 4. Everything happens quickly. He must be buried before noon. The service starts at 9 or so. Everyone is crammed into the tiny chapel at the funeral home, family sits on the front row, followed by friends and others. His momma told the preacher to, “not try to preach him or anyone else into heaven.” It’s not our way. Just say some comforting words and a simple prayer. The family continues to sit while everyone else says their goodbyes at the coffin, closed still. Once everyone else leaves, it’s our time to mourn. We are allowed to cry one last time for him, here and now. No one outside the family is allowed to see this, he is ours again, for this brief few precious moments. After this, we won’t cry for him ever again. I heard it said that our ways are the hardest because we are not allowed to cry for our dead.
We thank the Creator for his life, we sing the travelers song, and we bury our cousin. Not a single tear is shed at the gravesite.
Damon McKinney is an indigenous author living in northeast Arkansas. Damon has a forthcoming chapbook, Beer-Breath Kisses, from Belle Point Press.
2 responses to “BlackHawk Blues”
I enjoyed your read little brother. Continue to make progress in your writing. I am honored to be your sister ❤️ I love you