When I pulled up in the driveway, it was 2am and I had been out with my buddies John David and Ignacio all day long. I wobbled into my house, half-asleep, and shoved my keys in my pocket. As I turned around, two masked men shoved me against the door, demanding my wallet.
“Here,” I said and handed it over. The joke was on them. My wallet only had $8 in it.
“No credit cards?” one of the burglars asked. He had a ski mask and the other had a nylon sock over his face. I shook my head. I never got a credit card since I’ve heard horror stories about them. The burglars threw me on the floor and ransacked the whole living room. Pine Ridge is the poorest rez in the United States. My family used to be below the poverty line. When I was 10, my parents got better jobs and we moved to our house. But, we still weren’t rich either.
“All right, kid, where’s the good stuff?” Sock Face asked.
“That’s it, really,” I shrugged as I stood up. I was shaking, but there wasn’t much I could do. We didn’t have a stash of money, valuable jewelry, or expensive clothes. The most they could get away with was my ina’s knock-off china dinner set. Ski Mask kicked me down and Sock Face punched me in my face. They took off and burst through my parents’ bedroom. I heard Ina screaming and Ate cursing. I ran over and I saw Sock Face holding Ate against the wall while Ski Mask spread himself over Ina.
“Nimo, call the cops,” Ate told me in Lakota. There aren’t too many people on the rez who speak it. Luckily, neither of them understood. I called 911 and then rushed back to the bedroom. Ski Mask had tied Ina’s hands together and he was trying to rip off her nightgown. I kicked Sock Face in the groin and Ate knocked him down. Then Ate grabbed his handmade spear that hung over the dresser.
“That’s my wife, you son of a bitch!” Ate shouted and jammed the spear through Ski Mask’s leg. I didn’t see Sock Face fire the gun. I only saw Ate bleed all over the carpet.
Ate was taken to the Indian Health Service Hospital on the rez. He lost a lot of blood, but he was stable. The bullet missed his heart by a couple of centimeters. The good news was Sock Face and Ski Mask were found and arrested, but that didn’t change what happened to Ate. Ina wasn’t taking the whole thing too well. She cried and screamed every time I got near her.
“But Ina, he’s still alive,” I said and she fell on the floor, sobbing into her hands. Ate almost died once when I was little. He was born with aortic valve stenosis, a condition that made his aorta naturally narrow and almost cut off his heart’s blood flow. When I was three years old, he had his aortic valve replaced, but it didn’t make him invincible.
I didn’t get any sleep the whole night and neither did Ina. Ate was in the trauma center and they don’t allow visitors, so I sat in the waiting room wondering if he was alive or not. Eventually I found out Ate would be transferred by helicopter to the Sioux Plains Medical Center, where my leksi Gray Mountain works.
“C’mon Ina, let’s try to get some sleep,” I said. “Ate will be okay soon.” She hooked onto my arm and walked to the parking lot with me. She fell asleep the minute we got in my car. Ina and Ate have the habit of rubbing their wedding rings whenever they’re apart from each other. Even in dreams, Ina massaged her wedding ring.
I placed Ina on the couch when we got home. As soon as I plopped down on my bed, John David called to see how I was doing.
“I gotta go to Sioux Plains Med Center, they’re transferring my ate over there.”
“I’ll drive you,” he said. “Ignacio asked for the day off and he’s making you and your ina some food. Get some shut eye. I’ll pick you up in three hours.”
Of course, I didn’t sleep at all. Every time I tried to, I heard Ate’s voice say, “you son of a bitch.” He said that a lot when he was pissed, even to women. If those were his last words, they’d be perfect for him. I went to my parents’ room and used Ate’s switchblade to cut out his blood stains from the carpet. When I put his switchblade back in his toolbox, I saw his rubber ring. Ate didn’t wear his real wedding ring at work since me and him were handymen, I mean facility technicians, at Sitting Bull College. Sometimes we dealt with chemicals or electricity, so Ate made a rubber wedding ring to wear while on the job.
“Nimo, open the damn door!” I heard from outside. I saw John David standing on the porch with Ignacio, hand in hand. They had been married for five months and got their own place a couple blocks away from my house.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear the doorbell,” I said and let them in.
“What doorbell? You haven’t had a doorbell since 10th grade,” John David reminded me. I went to the couch and tried to wake Ina up, but she didn’t budge. With Ignacio’s help, I carried her into John David’s truck outside.
“Someone’s gotta be real sick to hurt your family, Nimo,” Ignacio said as we headed to Highway 18. “I’ve been praying for your dad all morning.”
“He must’ve put up one hell of a fight, huh? Remember how he beat the crap outta that guy in Rapid City for calling your ina a dirty Indian?” John David said to me.
“Yeah,” I said and cleared my throat for my Ate imitation. “I’m gonna scalp you and hang your hair up in my living room, you son of a bitch.” John David laughed and continued with, “Then I’m gonna cut your face off and wipe my ass with it, you son of a bitch!”
My leksi Gray Mountain has been a doctor since 1989. He works four days a week at the Sioux Plains Medical Center and volunteers every Friday at the Indian Health Service Hospital. He doesn’t charge anyone on the rez. He’s delivered babies, operated, fixed broken bones, and given shots for free. I found him at the Intensive Care Unit, drawing on his notepad. He sketches the human body right before a surgery to help him visualize it.
“Everything okay?” I asked him and he dropped his notepad on the floor.
“Oh hoksila,” he said. “He was shot four times, but he’s okay. I’m getting ready to operate him and get the bullets out.”
“Four?” I said. “They told me once at IHS.”
“Don’t listen to IHS, Nimo, they’re morons,” Leksi said and showed me his drawing. There were circles on the chest, legs, and arm. Ate is Leksi’s little brother. My unci struggled with depression and she committed suicide when they were kids. Then my tunkasila had a heart attack when they were 16 and 19. So, Leksi took care of Ate until he met Ina and married her. He patted me on my back and went through doors that said STAFF ONLY.
Back in the waiting room, Ina finally woke up and was slowly eating Ignacio’s famous broccoli cheese casserole. John David and Ignacio were looking out the window, hugging each other and sharing kisses in between.
“Nimo, did you find your leksi?” Ina asked me. I told her I did and said we had to wait it all out. I asked her if she was doing okay and she nodded, but she only does that when she doesn’t want to talk. Part of me wished Ate could be in the ICU for a different reason. If he had a heart attack or if he had an accident at work, it would be expected. Even a car wreck would have made more sense. Ate wasn’t a cop, a gang member, or a burglar like Ski Mask and Sock Face. Being shot was too out there.
When Ate finally woke up, he asked Ina what time it was. She didn’t answer him since she was too busy weeping at the sound of his voice.
“Geez Josie, am I that late for work?” he said. Ina hugged him through the tubes crisscrossing over his body, but he was upset that he still didn’t know what time it was.
“It’s Tuesday and it’s 9:16 in the morning,” I said.
“Thank you son,” Ate answered. “Hey Josie, I told Gray Mountain to save the bullets for me. I’m gonna make a necklace outta them.”
“Don’t do that, Jay Eagle, I don’t wanna see those, they almost killed you,” Ina said.
“Aw c’mon, can I keep one?” Ate said. “Just one? I’ll wear it under my shirt.”
“No, I don’t ever wanna to see those things again,” Ina told him. Ate and Ina went back and forth about the bullets for twenty minutes or so. In the end, they agreed on keeping only one. I stayed with Ate in the room while Ina went to the cafeteria to get us breakfast. He said he didn’t remember being shot four times since the first bullet knocked him out. According to him, the pain was sharp, but it was over quickly.
“Real pain is childbirth,” Ate said. “When Ina had you, she screamed so loud, I lost my hearing for a few hours. On top of that, you got my melon head and you almost split her open.”
“Ate, stop, I don’t need to know,” I said, but he kept on talking as usual. He told me every detail of my birth, from the moment Ina went into the labor to her contractions and even the second my “big, giant melon head flew out.”
“You’ve seen the movie Alien, right?” Ate said. “It was kinda like that.”
“Ate, quit it, that’s so nasty,” I said with gagging sounds.
“Damn straight,” Ate said and put his hand on my left shoulder. “It was disgusting as hell. But it was one of the best days of my life.”
For the first time ever, I worked alone at Sitting Bull College. I wasn’t able to finish what I had to do in time and was 30 minutes late to class. My professors knew about Ate, like everyone on the rez did by now. They said they missed seeing him fixing pipes, waxing the floors, and washing the windows. I told my professors Ate would be back soon, once he was his strong self again, whenever that would be.
“Nimo, did you check if the pipes were working fine?” Ate asked when I got home. He was in his chair, wearing his homemade bullet necklace, with his new cane next to him.
“No leaks,” I said.
“Don’t forget to replace the bulbs in the student lounge; they was looking low on juice last time I was there,” he said.
“Changed them today,” I answered him. Ina called out from the kitchen, saying dinner was ready. Ate pressed his hand on his cane and slowly stood up. One of the bullets got a nerve in his right leg, but the cane was temporary. At least I wanted it to be.
“Help me out, Nimo. This pain’s a son of a bitch,” he said. I reached my hand out and he grabbed on. We’re the same height, almost the same weight too, but Ate seemed smaller.
“Thank you son,” Ate said when he sat at the table. “Hey Josie, this food smells great.”
“It’s just something I tossed together,” Ina said. She bent over to kiss Ate on his lips since he couldn’t move very well.
Leksi came over a little after dinner. His eyes were struggling to stay open as he checked to see how Ate was doing.
“I am fine, get on home to Rosa, you look like a zombie,” Ate told him. Rosa, or as I call her, Tunwinla, is a psychologist. One day Leksi was depressed, so he made an appointment with Dr. Rosa Black Hill. They got married in ’92 and had my cousin Lucille in ’94. Both sides of my family have been into medicine for centuries. My great tunkasila James Eagle Red Wolf was an herbalist. My tunkasila John David Red Cloud was an EMT. A way-back tunkasila of mine, Thunderclap, was a medicine man, before South Dakota was a state.
“You should be back to normal within eight to twelve weeks,” Leksi said to Ate. “Everything is looking good for now.”
“Of course everything’s looking good, I’m the better looking brother,” Ate said. Leksi was too tired to laugh at the joke. He had one more full day at the med center and then he’d be back on the rez again for his volunteer day. Before he started his drive to Sioux Plains, he swung his white coat off and carried it in his right arm. I never liked seeing Leksi in his white coat. It always meant someone wasn’t doing well.
Ignacio is a personal trainer for the rez gym. He suggested I take Ate to the gym for some strength exercises and when I did, Ate couldn’t do anything, not even throw a weighted ball.
“This is bunk, I lift heavy stuff at work all the time,” Ate said.
“But Ate, you haven’t worked in over a month,” I reminded him. He swore he was still as strong as before and he tried to lift a 30 pound dumbbell to prove it.
“Baby steps, Mr. Thunderclap,” Ignacio said when he saw Ate wasn’t succeeding.
“Just relax for now, Ate, you still got plenty of time off from work,” I said. He didn’t listen. He tried a 50 pound dumbbell next and he collapsed on the floor.
“All right, let’s go home,” Ate groaned. I helped him up and thanked Ignacio for his time. Ate was always stronger than me. He could lift the heaviest equipment without making a sound, which wasn’t really good because of his heart condition. There were times at work when I’d see him carrying at least 150 pounds worth of machinery and I’d secretly pray to the Creator to keep his heart from popping in half.
“That dumbbell was a son of a bitch,” Ate said during our drive home.
“Like Ignacio said, Ate, baby steps,” I said. “Remember how weak John David used to be? Ignacio got him into good shape, but it took about a year.”
“Nimo, your ina’s birthday is coming up soon, how am I supposed to take her out anywhere if I can’t do a damn thing?” Ate said.
“Take her to Showtime Center, maybe there’s a movie she wants to see,” I suggested.
“Nah, your ina likes doing stuff,” he shook his head. “She loves going dancing, but I can’t do that, not with a cane. I look like I’m 50 years old.”
“Ate, you’re 51,” I said and he hung his head low.
“That’s right, son,” Ate went on. “I was gonna let those sons of bitches take whatever they wanted, but when one of them tried to hurt your ina, that was it for me. If they had killed me, I wouldn’t have given a damn. There ain’t too many people I’d take a bullet for.” We came to a red light I didn’t notice, so I slammed on the brakes, making us both lurch forward.
“And you know what? When me and Ina first got married, there were three guys bugging her at work and I said I was gonna hang them with their own intestines. Sometimes I hate being her husband. She’s beautiful, Nimo and that means I gotta contemplate homicide at least once a week,” Ate said. He didn’t stop talking about Ina for the rest of the drive and during the whole time, he rubbed his wedding ring.
John David is the assistant manager at Supreme Harmony, a fancy Chinese restaurant over in Sioux Plains. He gets a 60% discount on all of the food, so he managed to arrange a cheap dinner for my ina’s birthday. Since it was Friday night and my parents would be gone for a long time, I planned a hangout day with John David and Ignacio. We ordered pizza and then kicked back in my living room, skimming through TV channels.
“Honey, could you get me a glass of water?” Ignacio said to John David.
“No, get it yourself,” John David said, but he went into the kitchen anyway.
“So do you think your dad’s ever gonna come to another a training session?” Ignacio asked me. I shrugged my shoulders.
“He said he wants to go back to work next week, but I don’t think he’s ready for it yet,” I said. “I’ll ask him again, but I can’t promise you anything.” John David returned with Ignacio’s glass of water. He bent over and gave Ignacio a long kiss on his right cheek.
“Sorry for the PDA,” John David said to me. “It’s Ignacio’s fault for being adorable.”
Skimming TV channels got old after a while, so John David suggested we go to George’s Restaurant in Sioux Plains. After 9pm on Friday and Saturday, half of the restaurant transforms into a music venue. We ordered a couple of drinks, waiting for the atmosphere to liven up.
“Dance with me, JD,” Ignacio said through the music. He pulled John David from our table and dragged him out to the dance floor. I sat in my chair, watching them take over the scene. They were always great dancers, but people usually stared at them for being a same sex couple, not for their moves. I can’t dance too well anymore, not since I got hit by a car a few years back and injured my leg.
“You tired, Nimo?” Ignacio asked me after he and John David shared about six songs together. “We can head home if you want.”
“I’ll try to bust a move soon,” I said, but I never did. I watched Ignacio and John David dance for a few more songs and then I told them I was heading home for the night. Plus, there weren’t any girls who wanted to dance with me anyway.
It was past 1am when I pulled into my driveway. Ate’s car was parked behind Ina’s car, so they were definitely home. Since I thought they could be asleep, I opened the door as quietly as I could and tiptoed to the kitchen for a late night snack, but then I heard Ina’s voice talk over a slow song on the radio.
“C’mon Jay Eagle, it’s my birthday,” she said.
“Josie, I told you I ain’t dancing with you in this condition and that’s that,” Ate said.
“But there ain’t nothing wrong with you,” Ina said. I peeked inside the kitchen, seeing Ina try to lift Ate up from a chair at the table. He wouldn’t budge, but after she gave him a kiss on his cheek, he wobbled to his feet.
“Aw Josie, I can’t do it,” Ate groaned as Ina began to sway him. “I’m too weak.”
“Jay Eagle, don’t be ridiculous,” Ina said and turned up the radio. Ate barely moved at first. He was able to build up to a faster pace after a minute or two, but then he ran out of breath.
“See, I told you I couldn’t, now do you believe me?” Ate said and eased himself back into the chair. “I’ll dance with you when I get better.”
“But you did dance, even if it was only for a little while,” Ina said as she shut the radio off. She sat down next to him, put his cane aside, and hugged him.
“Happy Birthday, Josie,” Ate sighed. “Wish I could’ve given you a good day.”Ate’s bullet necklace came loose and fell on the floor. Ina picked it up and placed it on the table.
“Sweetie,” Ina said. “You’ve given me tons of good days without me asking you to.”
“I feel dizzy,” Ate groaned. “I think I’m gonna fall off this chair.”
“No you ain’t,” Ina said and took him tighter in her arms. “I got you, babe.”
“Babe, I got you babe,” Ate said in his off-key singing voice. “I got you babe.”
“Don’t do that, Jay Eagle, you sound like a hurt walrus,” Ina said and he laughed. Then he looked at Ina, giving her his wink of approval.
“Aw, what the hell,” Ate said and stood up without his cane. He kept one hand on the table and twirled Ina with the other.