Those lists you see of things you’re supposed to do before you die, many include spending a night in jail. I suppose the thinking is something like, you haven’t really taken anything to the limit if the cops haven’t noticed. Arrested at Mardi Gras for being too drunk, that’s funny. Protesting something you hate, that’s cool. Three of my cousins sat in a cell one night for a spirited round of mailbox baseball. My father spent the night in jail for spitting on a cop who gave him a speeding ticket. My mother spent the night in jail with Martin Luther King after a march.
My uncle spent more than one night.
When I place my palm flat across my nose and turn my head back and forth, it produces a wet, snapping sound, like I’m breaking my nose over and over again. I can also move my palm instead of turning my head, but the sound isn’t quite as loud. People always react the same way, like they just heard nails on a chalkboard. It’s my most requested party trick.
I don’t know what makes the sound. Maybe one of my friends will go to medical school and one night when I crack my nose on cue, they’ll say, “that’s the flux of your septum snapping against the inner curve of your cranial arch” or something, and then I’ll know. Of course it’s a moot point. I left my friends behind with the last move.
The nose-snapping thing doesn’t hurt, but I’m telling you about it because it comes to bear. Supposedly I once stood too close to my brother while he was at bat. On the backswing, my brother hit me in the nose. This happened when I was too young to remember. My nose didn’t bleed but it did grow slightly off kilter.
In high school wrestling, my opponent flipped me over and my face hit the mat. My nose finally bled. It gushed, actually, as if the nosebleed that should have happened when I was four had compounded interest. The school nurse called my mother and my mother took me to the doctor.
By the time I reached the doctor’s office, the bleeding had stopped. The doctor hit the bridge of my nose lightly with the side of his hand. It was like turning on a faucet. He first noted that one nostril barely trickled. Then he took two very looooong cotton swabs and eased them up both my nostrils. I didn’t think anything that long could go up my nose without poking out the top of my head, but they did. They burned like fire and made my eyes water, but the bleeding stopped again.
For two years after that, I got a nosebleed if you looked at me cross-eyed. I never went back to his office. My mother never said so but I think she believed she had made a mistake, bringing me to see a doctor. Or at least to that one.
I told you about that so I could tell you about my uncle Jason. It’s personal, family business (of course it was in the papers, so how personal could it be?), but it comes to bear.
I have eight uncles, if you count both sides of the family. Uncles are cool because they wrestle a lot longer than dads, but Jason wasn’t so great at it. He’d knock me and my brother around, having a great old time. After one good choke hold or slam to the floor, we looked for a different uncle. Uncle Jason was quiet, sweet, and not violent in the least. He just had no idea how strong he was, and he had no finesse.
When he left the reservation, Uncle Jason liked to go to this one blues bar upstate called Tobacco Joe’s. He didn’t make friends easily but the bartenders and waitresses all knew him by name. They enjoyed having him because he didn’t talk shit like a lot of the regulars, he just sat there listening to them talk shit. Also, having a real live Native American gives your blues bar some credence.
Someone at Tobacco Joe’s didn’t like my uncle. Maybe this matters, maybe it doesn’t, but not only is my uncle capital “N” Native, he wore his hair so you would know it for sure. It may have been the long hair, or maybe his smile. Either way, everyone agreed it was the dead guy’s fault. The dead guy started it, kept it going, and escalated it. The only thing my uncle did was end it.
I don’t know the particulars. Men drinking, heated words, blah-de-blah. Eventually the dead guy pulled a knife and stabbed my uncle between the ribs. My uncle did three things. He pushed the dead guy. This caused him to go flying across a table and land face up on his back, dazed but still holding the knife. My uncle walked over to the dead guy and stomped on his wrist. This shattered the dead guy’s wrist and he dropped the knife. The dead guy rolled over and grabbed the knife in his other hand. My uncle kicked him in the chin.
Uncle Jason passed out and almost drowned in his own blood from the hole the dead guy put in his lung. The witnesses said self defense, the lawyer said self defense, and the judge agreed. My uncle has never said a word about it. He was never chatty, but since he met the dead guy, Uncle Jason’s said maybe half a dozen words to me. He doesn’t go out anymore, either. Just sits around tota‘s house watching TV, getting thinner and thinner. He wears his hair in a crew cut. Certain tribes in the plains do this when they’re grieving, but not us.
Not officially, anyway.
Am I a person who doesn’t know his own strength? See if you like this story.
In third grade the class bully was this kid named Sean. He was taller than most of us and fatter than all of us. He started pushing me around in the lunchroom. I called him a fatso. He asked if I wanted to do something about it. I wondered – aloud – what I was supposed to do about him being fat, so he started pushing me and calling me names. Soon I got sick of him and I punched him in the stomach. He made this weird oogphm sound and puked all over my arm. I started screaming and waving my arm around. Sean cried. Our classmates gathered around us, screaming for blood. Flecks of Sean’s vomit from my flailing arm hit their faces.
Eventually, he got sick of watching me freak out. He beat me to the floor, where he proceeded to kick me. He cried the whole time. Mostly I remember the smell of his vomit, and my revulsion. It was my first and last fight.
I’ve just moved here and I don’t have any friends, so when a couple of guys from work invite me out for drinks I can’t say no. I know Charley is the guy to call when I’m having problems with my printer or if my computer freezes. Not because he’s the IT guy but because he can do what the IT guy does without the attitude. But is Charley married? Does he call Barack Obama half-black or half-white? Who does he think should’ve won Top Chef? I don’t know any of these things but tonight is my chance to find out. If we agree on enough of these things, bang, instant friend. If we don’t agree but we enjoy arguing our respective points, maybe we still become friends. If the chemistry simply isn’t there, I’ve got a guy to have a few drinks with after work but no one I’m asking to be my best man.
Charley’s invited the computer tech as a buffer. Scott-the-Tech doesn’t know that Charley fixes stuff behind his back. After an hour, I realize Scott-the-Tech is one of those frustrating colleagues, the kind you can’t quite bring yourself to hate because they’re fun outside of work. Get Scott away from a computer that needs fixing (or rather, away from a dumbass like me who can’t operate it) and he displays a self-deprecating humor that’s endearing.
The three of us share an hour of small talk and small laughs. Then these jock douche bags at the next table make it pretty clear they’re not just laughing and having a good time, they’re laughing at us to have a good time.
To be fair, I have no idea if the jock douche bags in question are athletes of any kind. Sports have never held any interest for me, so there’s a certain way of dressing, of hair style, of drink choice, that I associate with the whole lifestyle. Crew cuts, backward balls caps, sweatshirts with sport teams, domestic beers. So yeah, I’ve made a surface decision based on what these guys look like, the same way they have with me. But I never said, “What a bunch of jock douche bags” to my coworkers, yet I distinctly heard the phrase “Hey, check out that long-haired faggot” come from their table. There’s nothing on TV but sports, and there’s no one else here who qualifies as a long-haired faggot, so I know they’re talking about me.
Uncle Jason is Indian, my father’s brother. My mother is white. White skinned, anyway, but who knows if someone half Italian and half Irish is considered white? So you do the math. I wear my hair long but it doesn’t have the same look as the men on my father’s side of the family. Mom’s Irish lightens it a few shades and her Italian gives it some wave that’s not quite a curl. No matter how much I want to look like I belong on the side of a buffalo nickel, my hair is closer to burned-out-surfer-dude than anything else. Maybe, in this dark bar in a small town where beer guts and bad shaves are not just the norm but a kind of uniform, I have a sensitive, model-wannabe look. Either way, I’ve lived here three weeks and I’ve met two Spanish people, both of them in food service, and one black guy, who cleans our offices.
Make no mistake, this uniformity of skin tone is not any easier than living on the reservation as a half-breed. When you can pass for white with a haircut there’s always a certain segment of people who won’t like you on sight. Where’s your blood? they always want to know.
Where’s your blood?
I look at the jock table. When I find the guy grinning a little bigger than the rest, making eye contact a little longer, I assume he made the comment. My look becomes a stare. I put it in my eyes, don’t mess with me. His grin widens and he blows me a kiss.
Now I come up against where I’ve been put together wrong. When God built Uncle Jason, S/He got distracted when S/He was tuning Jason’s strength and the dial shot way up. When God made me, S/He overdosed on the anger. What this total stranger has done to me and what I want to do in return, it’s all out of proportion, like shooting a guy for bumping into you. The blood pounding in my ears feels just that reckless and ruthless. Blood is crazy, always rushing through your body, trying to get out. When that pressure builds, it reaches a certain point, and then it needs to go somewhere. It’s how fights start. Or so I think, never having been in one since the vomit-on-the-arm frolic when I was nine.
But hell, the bar is dark. In better lighting, the jock would see that my eyes don’t lie. I didn’t get the hair, but I got the stoic stare. The problem is, by the time my stare cuts through this fool’s drunken haze, it will be too late. We will have met, and it won’t be pleasant.
This is what’s going on in my mind when hour number two winds down. Meanwhile, this guy has passed my chair to get drinks twice. Much to his table’s amusement, he has accidentally-on-purpose bumped into me both times.
Conversation at my table has wound down to nearly nothing. It was hard enough starting it up again after the first bumping incident, but now I’ve given up on talking in favor of staring a hole into this guy. In my mind I’ve dubbed him Blue Hat because of the baseball cap he wears. The local pro team is a football team, not a baseball team, but they still make a baseball cap for them. What kind of sense does that make? Also, it’s the gayest shade of blue you’ve ever seen in your life. Calling me a faggot? Before removing the speck of dust from your neighbor’s eye, remove the plank from thine own, I say. Or the Bible says and I repeat, but you get me.
To clarify, I’m not a homophobe. Check your history. My father comes from a long matriarchal tradition and didn’t waste time instilling any man’s man bullshit into me. Whether Blue Hat really thinks I’m gay is insignificant to me. What is significant is that he doesn’t recognize that I’m a warrior.
Did I mention there is a very large chip on my shoulder? It’s a leftover of my reservation days. Full bloods loved to remind me I didn’t look Indian enough. Unfortunately, being aware of my chip doesn’t make it any easier to think around it.
When Blue Hat gets up a third time and heads for the bathroom, I mark his progress. He has no reason to come near our table on the way back but he does. He pauses next to my chair to light a cigarette. His friends all wear expectant grins. Anger is slow-roasting my guts. Blue Hat plays his part well, not even glancing my way as he casually tosses his match. I’m on my feet as the match slides down the front of my shirt, leaving sparks in the ends of my hair. I brush them away without dropping my eyes. I’m nearly a head taller than him but he’s got to be twice my girth. I say what I guess starts things like this all the time, no matter where you are or where you come from.
“You got a problem?”
Other choices that have flitted through my head the last hour over gin and tonics? What’s your problem? What are you trying to prove? Why don’t you watch where you’re going (discarded when another bump was traded for the match trick)? I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you better back off. Why don’t you just calm down?
The biggest interior debate was whether to swear. It’s a great short hand, let’s people know you’re pissed. But the words are already fairly antagonistic without profanity. The game is, this guy hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s gotten drinks and mis-stepped. He’s flicked a match and not been careful. None of it has anything to do with me. That’s his game. You got a problem puts me in his face. I get to find out if he’s bluffing, just having fun at my expense, or if he wants to fight.
You ever notice how when two guys pass on the street, there’s always some snorting or sniffing involved? It must be some primal thing, left over from when early man lived in caves and hunted to survive. Maybe you smelled a guy to see if he was okay, or sniffed to let someone know that you weren’t afraid. Whatever the reason, two guys passing each other in the street or standing next to each other at a bus stop will always start sniffing back and forth like they’ve got allergies. Once you’re aware of it, it’s uncanny. Evolution takes it’s time, my friend.
Like the sniffing, something happens when you swear at another guy. The f-bomb would take this to a level I’m ready for, even wishing for in that crazy-blood way, but I want Blue Hat to make the choice. So I let him know that I know he’s taking me on, but I don’t go overboard with it.
“You got a problem?”
His face is pure innocence. “No problem at all.”
The spread hands, the slanted grin, the sniggers from his friends. This is the little boy who snapped the bra of the girl sitting in front of him in grade school. This is the kid who beat weaker kids in middle school. This is the punk who egged people from his car in high school. This is the frat boy who violated a passed-out sorority girl. This is the guy who hit his wife and told himself he was too drunk to remember. This is the guy who told his crying two-year-old to shut up and be a man. And he did it all with that same sideways grin.
My hands itch. I see myself choking him, grabbing a bottle and smashing his teeth, picking up a chair and splitting his head open. But he’s still playing the game, pretending he’s innocent. So I start to sit down.
“Faggot.” It’s low, under his breath, a continuation of his “no problem.” It’s a noisy bar. I could easily pretend I didn’t hear him. But we both know I did.
My sister is a Buddhist. She says I have to let go of desire and ego, the two things that cause all the problems in the world. Desire and ego. I’m not wearing a yellow robe or anything, but when she told me that it hit home. Right now my ego has been wounded, and I desire to kill this man I’ve never met before and probably will never see again. If I could let those things go, we could end the evening in a dignified manner. I understand this, the way I recognize the true source of my anger.
Blue Hat is still grinning and I want him to stop. I push him. He stops smiling and punches me.
I remember this, the way my nose explodes. There’s no crunch of broken bone, no pain past the first little snap, but there’s so much blood it must look like he split my face in half. As my head whips back from his knuckles, I picture those Gatorade commercials where the athletes shake their heads and sweat flies everywhere. Blue Hat doesn’t go into a boxing stance, just a fighting stance, waiting to see what move I’m going to make. He looks ready, but sloppy. Mostly he’s marveling at all the blood pouring out of my face. On impulse I reach up and do the nose-snapping trick, putting on a confused look like I’m tuning the dial on a radio. The sound carries over the jukebox, over the din of a hundred conversations. It’s not exactly painful, but there’s a discomfort that’s not there when I do the trick without having first been punched in the nose. It’s worth it just to see the look on this guy’s face. I wonder if my second fight is also going to involve vomit. Maybe that could be another party trick. Hey, wanna see me fight a guy and make him vomit? and hilarity ensues. Watch the party invites pour in.
Blue Hat is not looking at me with respect. He’s looking at me like I’m crazy. There’s a crack of fear there and I want to widen it, but I think of Uncle Jason. His sad, thin face. The image doesn’t keep me from taking two quick steps forward to close the distance between us.
His fists uncurl and his palms move outward, all innocence again, like he can keep me in place just by gesturing.
“It’s cool, man, it’s cool.” There’s a hint of panic in his voice.
I don’t listen.
My shirt feels stiff against my chest. It’s mostly my own blood, but the way these cops looked at me when they brought me in, you’d think I was Jeffrey Dahmer. There are no bars on the door; it’s just a slab of solid metal. It sounds very final when it closes.
So this is my night. If I’m lucky, the cops will give me a lecture in the morning instead of booking me, and I’ll just cross if off my list and go on with my life. Or if Blue Hat is lucky, I should say.
I close my eyes and pray for his health.