Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Jane Hammons

Staking Claim

Spring semester has ended, and I’ve packed all of my belongings into my baby blue Toyota Corolla. I don’t have air-conditioning, and by mid-day the temperature is already up to 100 degrees, so I wait until the sun begins to set before heading south along I-25 towards Socorro and the turn off that will take me to Ruidoso, a small village in the Sierra Blanca Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. Ruidoso is the Apache word for noisy water. Not far from the border of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, my grandparents have a small fishing cabin in Noisy Water Canyon on the banks of the Ruidoso River. I can live there rent-free for the summer while I wait tables. Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, the home of the All American Futurity—the richest quarter horse purse in the world—is just south of Ruidoso. Gamblers pack the town in the summer. The tips are good. I need money to pay next year’s tuition.

This is what’s on my mind as I leave Albuquerque behind. The sun sets behind the Magdalena Mountains, casting a pink glow across the Manzano Mountains to the east of the Interstate. I’m enjoying the sunset when I hear a clunk and then a hiss coming from the engine. I pull to the shoulder.

I grew up on a farm outside Roswell, New Mexico, and I’ve been driving vast scarcely populated stretches of road since I was 15. I am familiar with this scenario: car broken down on the side of the road. I don’t panic. I wait for the steam to stop pouring out from under the hood before I get out to see what has happened. When I raise the hood, I see that the fan has come loose and chewed a hole in my radiator. It’s almost dark. The mountains are a dark bruise along the horizon. I’m wondering what to do when a man in a large sedan pulls up behind me on the shoulder of the road. He’s got a flashlight. He shines it up and down me a few times as he looks me over. I’m wearing a t-shirt, cut off jeans and sandals. “Looks like you got a problem,” he says and then points the flashlight under the hood. “You’re not going anywhere with a torn-up radiator.”

“I know,” I say.

“I’m headed to Las Cruces, but I’ll give you a lift back to Albuquerque.”

My choices are limited. I can wait out here and see who else comes along and what will happen in the pitch dark when they do. Or I can accept the ride.

“All right,” I say. I grab my large tapestry bag from the passenger seat, take my keys out of the ignition and lock the car. It’s 1974. Tales of kidnap, rape and torture do not daily fill the news, so I’m probably less frightened than I should be. But I’m not completely naïve. In my Women Studies class, we had a couple of workshops on self defense, and I know that keys can be used as a weapon. I keep them clenched in my fist, ready to scratch or jab if I have to. I swing my bag confidently over my shoulder and climb into the sedan. I don’t fasten my seatbelt.

The sun is down now and the night air is cool. But the man is blasting his air conditioner. It’s very cold inside the car. I’m not wearing a bra, and the man keeps staring at my nipples, so I clutch the tapestry bag to my chest and cover myself. When he exits the freeway, takes the overpass, and heads north back to Albuquerque, I am relieved to be heading back to the city. But then he suddenly takes the exit to Isleta Pueblo.

“It’ll be faster,” he says. “Along this back road.”

I’ve driven the back roads, and I know that the highway leading out to the ranches and the Pueblo is not a faster route . As we approach the intersection of the highway and the dirt roads that branch off from it, I pray he will obey the sign and stop. When he does, I jump out of the car and into the scrub and brush that line the highway. I slide between the wires on the barbed wire fence and head for the only light I see. If he wants to come after me, he’ll have to get out of his car. I don’t look back, but I hear him peel out and head off down the road.

The light I’m following is hanging from a tall pole in the middle of a homemade basketball court. Indian boys are shooting baskets. I startle them as I come charging out of the cacti and dry grass.

“What’s the matter?” one of them asks. “You all right?” He points to a trickle of blood coming from my thigh where I cut myself on the barbed wire.

I’m breathless and my mouth is dry. I can smell my sweat. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I say. “My car broke down on the Interstate. So I walked over here.”

“You coulda walked on the road,” the boy says to me, looking at me like I’m dumb.

I just shrug, put my hands on my knees, bend over and vomit. Two of the boys head off home without speaking a word. The boy with the basketball just stands there.

“You think I could use your phone?” I ask him, wiping my mouth with a tissue from my bag.

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I live with my grandma over there.” He points to a dark house I hadn’t noticed. “She don’t like,” he pauses, “company.”

I’ve tutored at a couple of reservation schools, and I know that what his grandmother probably doesn’t like is white girls. “If I could just use the phone to call a friend, I can go back and wait for them at my car.”

He passes me the basketball. “I’ll ask,” he says and goes into the house.

I stand in the bright light that shines down over the basket that is nailed to the pole and bounce the ball in the hardpacked dirt, make a couple of lay-ups. I begin to think he won’t return. Then a little light comes on over the small square patch of cement at the front door. He leans out and motions me to come to the house. Behind him stands his grandmother.

“Hello,” I say. I stick my hand out and hope for a handshake, but she does not return the gesture. I introduce myself. “My names Jane Hammons. My car broke down, and I was wondering if I could use your phone to call some friends in Albuquerque.”

The grandmother says, “Ronny’s herding sheep. He’ll be back in a while.” She points to the couch that faces the TV. It is covered with a bright red and turquoise woolen blanket. On the TV sits a framed 8 x 10 picture of President Kennedy. I’ve never been in an Indian household that doesn’t have one of these. Stuck into the corner of the frame is a wallet-sized photograph of a young man in military uniform.

The boy sees me looking at it. “That’s my dad. He’s in Vietnam.”

“My stepfather was there for a couple of years,” I tell him. “Danang.” I want to ask again to use the telephone, but I sit on the couch as the grandmother has directed me to do. She smokes a cigarette and stares at me.

“Danang,” the boy repeats the name of the city in South Vietnam. “That’s a dangerous place. He get hurt?”

“No. How about your Dad?”

The boy shrugs.

“You got money?” the grandmother asks.

“I do,” I assure her, taking my wallet out of my heavy bag. “I have twenty dollars.” I show her the bill I was planning to spend on gas and groceries while looking for a job.

“I could take the truck, Grandma,” says the boy. “For twenty dollars I could tow her back to town.”

The grandmother and I both shift nervously. This boy looks to be about 12 or 13, and while he probably drives, I doubt he has a license. “Ronny can do it when he gets back,” she says, blowing a straight stream of smoke towards me. And then she takes the cigarette out of her mouth. Holding it between two fingers, she points it at me. “You be careful.”

“I will be.” The grandmother’s rather odd, elliptical way of talking is more familiar to me than she might think. I have two Indian grandparents—my mother’s mother and my father’s father—and I know how to hear what is unsaid. But I am not the least bit tempted to tell this woman that I am part Indian. In my creative writing seminar a Hopi student recently read a poem she had written that ridiculed white people who sit around counting up the fifths and twelveths and hundredths of Indian blood that runs through their veins. When I was in high school, my academic advisor discouraged me from applying for Affirmative Action benefits, suggesting that I would be robbing a “real” Indian of opportunity. My best friend has counseled me to keep this part of my heritage secret, suggesting it is something to be ashamed of. Like a lot of mixed blood Cherokees, I have reddish blonde hair and green eyes. I’ll be the white girl this grandmother thinks I am.

The three of us sit and watch TV until Ronny arrives. The dogs greet him noisily as he drives the truck right up to the front door. The grandmother goes to the kitchen and gets a bowl of stew from a pot on the stove for Ronny, who appears to be about my age, maybe a little older. When he comes in, he takes his straw cowboy hat off and puts it on the coat rack by the door. He’s surprised to see me sitting there.

“Girl’s car broke down,” the grandmother says.

“You gotta tow her,” the boy adds.

“What?” says Ronny, looking at me.

“I could use the phone,” I say quickly. “I could call some friends to come get me, meet me at my car. I can walk back to it.”

“Twenty dollars,” says the grandmother. “Tow her to Albuquerque.”

“Sure,” says Ronny. “For twenty.”

“All right,” I say, standing.

“But I got to eat first,” he says. “And take a shower.”

I sit back down and stare at the TV.

When Ronny reappears it is clear he is headed into Albuquerque for a night on the town. Black cowboy hat, tight jeans, neatly pressed Western shirt, polished boots. His appearance is not lost on the grandmother.

“Straight home.” She stands and squares off with him. “No trouble.”

“Ready to go?” he asks me, ignoring her.

“I want to go to town,” the boy says.

“Not tonight,” Ronny tells his little brother.

“Call,” the grandmother says to me. She scribbles her phone number on the back of a wrinkled envelope she takes from the kitchen table and hands it to me. “When Ronny gets you to your friend’s house.”

“All right.” I drop the envelope into my deep bag and follow Ronny out the door.

“Where’s your car?” Ronny asks.

“Back up on the Interstate. Headed south.”

“College?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I tell him, “UNM.”

“I went there for a while,” he says but doesn’t elaborate. He fiddles with the radio and finds KUNM the University’s FM station.

We listen to The Grateful Dead and Hendrix as Ronny drives down the dirt road that leads from the Pueblo to the blue strip of highway where I jumped out of the car. Ronny continues along the highway to the overpass and gets back on the freeway. When we arrive at the car, I start to get out of his truck to help him.

“I’ll do it. You stay here,” he says. He takes a length of thick rope and a chain out of bed of the truck and ties it around my front bumper and his rear fender.

This is not a legal way to tow a car. “Hope you don’t get pulled over,” I tell Ronny when he gets back into the pickup.

Ronny shrugs. “Not so many cops along here,” he explains and follows the same route that I took earlier in the sedan.

“When we get to town, could you stop at a phone booth so I can call my friend?” I ask Ronny. “She doesn’t know I’m coming.”

“Okay,” he says. When we reach the outskirts of Albuquerque, he pulls over at Lance’s House of Blondes, a strip club. “I’m going to have a beer. Can I get that 20?”

“All right,” I say. It is all I can do to keep myself from asking what I would request of anyone in this situation: that he not drink so much that he can’t drive. But I’m afraid he will think I’m assuming that because he’s Indian, he’ll naturally get drunk. So I say nothing. I give Ronny the 20 and dig around in my bag for a dime. If Abby’s home, maybe she’ll come and get me. I can leave the car and get it tomorrow. I walk to the dimly lit phone booth in the large gravel parking lot outside the club. A man whistles at me on his way into Lance’s; another makes catcalls from his car. I ignore them and dial Abby’s phone number. She isn’t home. I stand in the phone booth and try twice more in the 15 minutes Ronny spends at the bar. Fortunately Abby lives in the Southwest Valley of Albuquerque, so Ronny doesn’t have to pull the illegal tow very far into the city.

“You scared or something?” he asks. “Why you so quiet?”

“I’m just tired.” I am not someone who is made uncomfortable by silence, and I’ve found that this often makes others uncomfortable around me. “I left Albuquerque around 6:00.” He glances at the clock in his truck. It is now past 10:00 p.m.

“Shit,” says Ronny. “Grandma make you wait two hours for me?”

“At least,” I say, and we both laugh. I’m a big basketball fan, so Ronny and I chat about the UNM Lobos until we reach Abby’s house. When we arrive, I get out of the truck and watch as Ronny disconnects my car from his truck.

“Thanks a lot,” I say and wave as he tips his cowboy hat at me and drives off. Abby is still not home, but I know where she keeps an extra key, so I let myself in, lie down on her couch and fall asleep.

After a couple of days, my car is fixed, and I am back on the road to Ruidoso. This time I leave before the crack of dawn and arrive safely at my destination. I find a job that afternoon at a steak and seafood restaurant with the preposterous name of Fisherman’s Wharf.

The owner, or proprietor as she calls herself, is a big-haired, mean-mouthed woman named Opal. Though her name would suggest it, this woman is no gem. She often makes the waitresses work late and refuses to pay us for the overtime. Summer has just begun, and it won’t be long before all of the good waitressing jobs are gone. Opal knows that there are plenty of young women out there eager to take our jobs.

One afternoon during the slow hours before the races end and the gambling crowd arrives for dinner, two young Indian women take a table near the front of the restaurant. As I prepare to wait on them, Opal pulls me sharply aside. “Tell them to show you their money,” she demands.

Opal has asked me to do a lot of things that fall outside the job description of a waitress—clean the bathrooms, peel and devein shrimp, unload produce from the delivery truck—but never this. “Why?” I ask.

“They’re redskins,” she says, her mouth a straight line of contempt. “They’ll stiff me.”

“How do you know that?”

“Lazy welfare injuns,” she spits through her teeth. “They think they get everything for free.”

I laugh in her face. “Yeah, Indians in this country have every reason to think that.”

“Do it now,” Opal says. She straightens the large turquoise and silver Squash Blossom that hangs around her neck. “Or you’re fired.”

“I don’t care,” I tell her. “I’m not doing it.”

The kitchen area is at a standstill now. The other waitresses have quit making salads. The cooks have stopped cooking. The Apache boy who washes dishes is watching us all.

“I’ll do it,” says Anne, who is not much older than I am and pregnant with her third child, “if the college girl is scared.”

“I’m not scared. It’s demeaning.”

“To you or them?” laughs Ann. “Look, I need this job and somebody needs to wait on customers. And if we don’t get rid of the Indians, Opal here is going to have a cow.”

I push past Anne. If Opal is going to get her way the least I can do is explain to the Indian women what is happening. But what I work out in my head as I walk to their table isn’t what comes out of my mouth. When I arrive at the table, they fold their menus and prepare to order.

“Hi,” I chirp in an overly friendly manner, “The owner,” I begin cautiously, “she wants you to show that you have money to pay for your meal.” In my mind, I am exposing Opal, not speaking for her.

One of the young women gasps in disbelief. “You want us to prove that we can pay?”

“Not me,” I sputter.

“You’re not going to serve us?” the other asks angrily.

At a loss for words now, I’m unsure how to explain what is happening.

“That woman, the owner.” I turn to point out Opal, but she has retreated to her office. “You shouldn’t eat here,” I blurt. “Don’t support her business with your money.”

“Now you’re telling us where to spend our money?”

“Is there a problem here?” Anne asks, appearing at my side. She takes out her pad as if to take their order.

“Yeah,” snarls one of the Indian women, “this girl.”

“Let’s go,” says the other. They grab their purses and stalk out of the restaurant. Despite my awkward but well-intentioned effort, Opal gets her way.

Defeated, I take the tip money from the pocket of my apron, remove the apron and leave Fisherman’s Wharf behind. Near tears, I run to my car. It isn’t until I have left the brightly lit village behind and enter the quiet dark of Noisy Water Canyon that I realize that I didn’t call Ronny’s grandmother to tell him that he had arrived in Albuquerque without incident. When I get back to the cabin, I dig through my bag and find the crumpled envelope with the grandmother’s telephone number on it. There is no telephone in the fishing cabin, so I tell myself that tomorrow when I go into the village to find another job, I’ll go to a phone booth, call the grandmother and apologize.

Instead I get up early the next morning and drive the 60 miles to Roswell. If I get to my grandmother’s house before she starts drinking, we can have a good long talk. She loves to tell stories of her childhood in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she lived with her grandfather, Colonel Johnson Harris, Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In her physical appearance, my grandmother “shows her Indian,” as we say proudly in my family of those with dark skin and hair. Like the young women who tried to have a meal at Fisherman’s Wharf, my grandmother has experienced racism. It is not this experience I desire. Who in their right mind would want to suffer the bigotry of others? I will never live in the brown skin of my grandmother, nor will I share in the experience of those who do. I am an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe, but what fool flashes an enrollment card as proof of who she is? What I can do for myself, and eventually for my children and for others, is listen to my grandmother’s stories as I try to figure out what bearing my family history has on who I am. It is through story—my grandmother’s, my own, this nation’s—that I can eventually stake claim to this identity.

©2006 by Jane Hammons

Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing has most recently appeared in River Walk Journal, The Big Stupid Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Kitchen Sink, and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her two sons.

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