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Story for Jeannie

VIEWS: 9 PAGES: 10

									                                  Trainman
                                  Leif Fearn
                                                           Word Count: 2789
      Flagstaff used to be small and pretty, just east of Grand Canyon on
Route 66, on the way to Albuquerque. Along the way, passengers and
freight moved through Winslow and Holbrook, then Gallup and Grants and
on to Central New Mexico. That’s Albuquerque. North of Albuquerque is
the land of enchantment. South is desert and salt flats. Albert Begay made
the trip every week. Flagstaff to Albuquerque on Monday, back on
Thursday. Then again on Monday. One of the reasons he took the job on
the train was the three-day weekends. He took the job after he returned from
the Gulf War, wasted a year, and then met Helen.
      In high school he learned about the Code Talkers. They were his first
heroes. They looked like him, and he took pride in hearing their story the
day when he was a senior and one spoke at his high school. The World War
II vet stood on the stage of the high school auditorium and faced the 400
Navajo students and the 35 nonIndian teachers and administrators. He
talked for 45 minutes. All in Navajo. The only people in the room who
understood were the students. It was the first time Albert experienced high
school as a place for him, not a place he had to figure out on the teachers’
terms. He didn’t cry during the Code Talker’s speech, but he wanted to.
And he decided right then, in that high school auditorium, what he would do
when he graduated.
      The day after the graduation ceremonies, Albert went to the Army
recruiting office in Flagstaff. He left early in the morning because he didn’t
go to graduation parties the night before. If he was going to be a soldier in



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the same spirit of the heroic Code Talkers, he wasn’t going to show up with
a hangover.
       They signed him up on the spot. He went to Fort Bliss just north of
El Paso for training, and then after a week back home to say good-by, he
was off to see the world. Well, a little piece of the world, and he had to
look through sandstorms, but he got what the army promised. He traveled.
He didn’t get to use his language to help the cause, as the Code Talkers did,
but he learned more than he had in the first 20 years of his life. He loved
every minute of his service.
       After the war, he lived a year near Frankfort, Germany, then two more
in Killeen, Texas where he worked with new recruits on the gunnery range.
Two more years in Flagstaff at the recruiting office working with Navajo
kids who came in looking for a future and he was discharged. He was 26, a
high school graduate who knew how to play poker, saunter and smile, swear
in two languages, and shoot an M-16. There weren’t any jobs in the paper
for those skills.
       He knocked around Flagstaff a while. Thought about going to the
college there, but only for a few minutes. The place never felt comfortable
to him. In high school, there was a weekend orientation to college life,
sponsored by the university in cooperation with the tribe. He had a good
time. The college was trying to be accepting, but it felt like a Billagana
school. Billagana. He didn’t use the word very often. It’s what Navajos
called Anglos. Most everyone there was Anglo. That was okay, but Albert
figured after what he’d been thorough, he didn’t have to be one of the token
Navajos at a white man’s school, on land that used to be his.
       So he drifted around and finally did what a lot of Navajo kids do
when there isn’t anything else. He started to drink a little more. He’d


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always heard that Navajos drink too much. He got to figuring that many
Navajos can’t drink enough. Albert was young, and he got to drinking too
much. Then at a party one night he saw a girl. It was early in the evening.
He wasn’t drunk, but he was pretty well lubricated. She was pretty. He
hadn’t had so much that he didn’t notice. And she was Navajo. He watched
her dance. She had beautiful hair that swayed with the sound of the music.
No one did such justice to a simple skirt and blouse. He was smitten and
just elevated enough that he could ask her to dance.
      He was a good dancer. He learned in the service. People said he was
light on his feet. He also learned when he was overseas that being Navajo
was valuable in a dance hall. No one looked just like him. Girls liked his
darker skin and his heavy-guage hair. He had that Navajo look that made
people think Asian, but he didn’t have Asian eyes. It was the cheekbones.
Oh, and the smile. He learned to turn on a smile.
      So before the next song came on, he sauntered toward the girl, smiled,
and put his hand out for a dance.
      She looked at him, and the skin on her face seemed to turn instantly
brittle. She made one eye near-close so her answer would be unmistakable
in case he was too drunk or too stupid to catch her meaning when she talked
through hard lips and clenched teeth. “I don’t dance with goddamned
drunken Indians.” She turned and strode away.
      Nobody ever talked to him that way. Once, after he returned from the
Gulf, he was in a bar in Texas, and someone said something about him
being Mexican. He invited the guy outside and as the guy thrust out his
chest in a challenge, Albert laid on two straight lefts and a straight right, in
the automatic combination he’d learned during basic training, and the small
crowd melted away. But that was the only time, and that one wasn’t about


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being an Indian, certainly not the racist reference she’d used. She said
“goddamned drunken Indian.”
      He stood where he was when she turned away. It felt like minutes
before he got his bearings. It was probably five seconds. Maybe fewer. He
kept hearing the voice in his head. Wow! The sound kept going over and
over. Wow!
      He found the door and went outside to the cool air. He could see her
face as he walked. He wasn’t leaving. He was just outside, walking, trying
to clear his head. He saw her rage, the eyes that exploded through his
artificial smile, his alcohol-aided countenance, his trained saunter, like a
rifle shot, right into the center of everything he thought he was. He was
smart, worldly, a trained soldier. He graduated from high school, which by
itself was more than many Navajo kids had done. He was well-read, he
could write. He’d been to Kwuait, for chrissake. He was honorably
discharged.
      I’m just waiting around a little before I get my life started, he thought
as he walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the house where the
party was going on. He heard it. It sounded like people were having a good
time. He wasn’t. He was miserable. It wasn’t that she rejected him. He’d
been rejected before, though not very often. He could handle the rejection.
It was the “goddamned drunken Indian” she’d injected into his soul that had
him nailed to the sidewalk in front of the party. He couldn’t go in. He
couldn’t leave, and couldn’t walk more than half a block in front of the
house. He couldn’t think of what to say to her, how to explain.
      He didn’t feel any buzz any more. I’m not a goddamned drunken
Indian, he thought, then mumbled it several times. I’m not. I know who she
was talking about. I understand why she feels that way. I know we drink


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too much. I’ve seen the drunken Indians she’s talking about. I’m not that
way. I just had a few. Hell it’s a party. Can’t I have a drink or two at a
party? I’m not falling down and puking on the sidewalk like they do in
Gallup on Friday and Saturday nights.
      He turned back toward the front gate where the party was. It was
dark and he was preoccupied, so the voice from behind the gate felt like the
shock he got when he was fixing an electric outlet without turning off the
electricity. The hair stood up on his forearms.
      “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. He stopped and turned, but
not because he didn’t know who it was.
      “It’s okay. You didn’t startle me.”
      It was too dark to see, but he could feel that look again. “Look here,
Albert Begay. I came out here to talk. You get one chance to be straight
with me, and yourself. You were startled. Admit it. It isn’t unmanly to be
startled. You can be startled, even afraid of the goddamned dark. That
doesn’t make you less a man, less Indian.
      “I came out here because someone in there told me who you are, or at
least were. If they’re right, maybe we have some things we can talk about.”
      “Sure, I’d…”
      “No, I don’t mean you talk now. I’m talking now. If we have some
things we can talk about together, you have to understand me first. I’m not
interested in even talking to you, not even having one dance, until you
understand.”
      Albert took a step toward her. “I understand.”
      “No you don’t! You don’t know me at all. You can’t understand if
you don’t know me. So decide right now if you want to be a man and face
some reality.”


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        She sounded like a college girl. “Face reality.” The sound stayed in
his ears. “Okay. Yeah. I mean yes, I’ll listen. Right here? Do you want to
sit down?”
        “No, I don’t want to sit down. I want to stand here on this side of the
gate with you standing on the other side and listening.”
        “Okay.”
        “Albert Begay, what I heard about you was real good. I like what
they said. I don’t like the drinking.”
        “But I only had a few at the party.”
        “You’re just about this close to using up your one chance,” she said,
her right thumb and forefinger an onionskin paper apart. Albert stepped
back.
        “Look, you had a few at the party. You had a few last night in a bar.
You had a few last weekend at a party. You have a few here and a few there
and you’re not just a guy who has a few once in a while. You’re a drunk!”
She paused. Albert didn’t protest. He didn’t say anything. It was still there
on the sidewalk, the gate between them. She waited. He waited. “Thank
you, Albert Begay.” she said.
        “What?”
        “Thank you. You didn’t make an argument. Thank you for just
listening.” He didn’t move.
        “Maybe you aren’t a drunk now, but you will be. Or maybe you won’t
be. Maybe you’re more terrific than everybody else. More terrific than my
father whom I haven’t seen in seven years and I don’t know where he is
except it’s in some ditch somewhere heaving his guts while my mother still
has two children at home to raise. Or more terrific than my brother who’s
my twin, but he’s out of it, too, drunk somewhere in a reservation border


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town in Montana. Maybe you’re different, but I’m not taking any chances.
There’ll be no more goddamned drunken Indians in my life, at least not any
I invite in.” She paused. “You understand?”
         Albert didn’t move.
         “It’s okay to talk now.” She softened her tone. “Do you understand
me? Do you understand what I’ve been through? Do you understand why I
near tore your head off in there?”
         “I’ll try.” He stepped forward a half-step. “I’ll try to understand.”
They were still separated by the gate, still several feet apart. “Will you tell
me your name?”
         “It’s Helen.” She reached over the gate with her right hand. “I’m
Helen Yazzie. It’s nice to meet you, Albert Begay.”
         He took her hand in his in that Navajo way when two people shake
hands. But it isn’t a shake. They just hold hands that way for a second or
two. Albert and Helen held hands in that Navajo way for the second or two
times two.
         Just as she let go of his hand, she asked, “Would you like to go in and
dance?” They danced several times. They talked about who they were and
where they’d been. She was the Head Start teacher at Leupp, the
reservation community just north off the interstate, east of Flagstaff. She’d
graduated from BYU with a degree in education. She lived there in Leupp,
in old BIA housing, but her home was in Chilchinbito, in the interior of the
reservation. That’s where her mother was with her younger brother and
sister. She usually went home on weekends to help her mother but decided
to stay this weekend to attend the party.
         “I’m glad you stayed,” he said when she paused in the middle of her
story.


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       “Me too. Me too.” There was a moment of silence as they danced.
“I don’t know when we can see each other again. I go home every weekend,
and I don’t go out during the week because of school in the morning.”
       “Maybe I can go with you to Chilchinbito sometime. I know where it
is.”
       “Maybe.”
       Albert did go to Helen’s house. He met her mother and brother and
sister. They liked him. He liked them. He liked Helen, and she him. They
liked each other more every day, and it got to the point that they started to
talk about a future. She said she didn’t want to live on-reservation when she
was married. She didn’t want to raise children on-reservation.
       Albert hadn’t thought much about that. Albert hadn’t thought much
about much of anything. He liked the idea that she could do more of the
thinking because she was smart and had a college degree. She didn’t treat
him as inferior because he hadn’t been to college. She liked his character.
       And while neither of them talked about it, she knew. She knew that
Albert Begay had his last drink at that party where they met.
       It was when they started talking about a future that Albert started
looking for a serious job. One weekend as they drove to her mother’s house
he told her. “I got a job on the railroad,” he said as the dust rose behind the
car when they left the paved road and drove slowly beside the wash toward
the compound where her mother lived.
       Helen reached across and took his hand. “I knew you would.”
       Their wedding was in a Mormon church off-reservation. They had a
Navajo singer bless the union before the church ceremony. They drove to
Phoenix for their honeymoon. Stayed in Scottsdale and blessed one another
for their good fortune.


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      Helen kept teaching in Head Start for another year, but after one
baby, and knowing they wanted another, she left the center in Leupp and
took a teaching job in Flagstaff. First grade. Better salary, much better
benefits. Together, their income bought a modest home on the edge of town
just south of the San Francisco Peaks.
      It was late December when Albert drove up the street toward his
home on a Thursday evening. There was a lot of snow. The sky was clear,
the air crisp. When he got out of the car to open the garage door, he smelled
pinon smoke.
      He thought it strange that the lights of the kitchen were off, but he
didn’t bother to turn them on. He walked through the kitchen toward the
living room where there was faint light. Helen was there, and Anslem, their
one-year old. There was a small Christmas tree with lights that gave the
tiny room a warm glow. Pinon smoldered in the fireplace.
      He sat on sheepskin she had spread over the couch and without a
word they nestled together. Anslem slept. The fire burned down to little
more than an occasional spark.
      “Thank you,” she whispered. He took a breath. “Don’t say anything
yet. I’m in my own home. It’s warm and dry. I have my healthy son beside
me, and I’m nestled with my husband, who came home when he promised,
sober. Thank you. This is the first good Christmas I’ve ever had.”
      He turned his head toward her face. Her tears covered her cheeks.
She didn’t bother to wipe them away. He squeezed her tenderly. They fell
asleep that way.




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