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
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
“I know,” I say.
“I’m headed to Las Cruces, but I’ll give you a lift back to
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“I could take the truck, Grandma,” says the boy. “For twenty dollars I
could tow her back to
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
“All right.” I drop the envelope into my deep bag and follow Ronny out
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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