Paper Towels By Oscar Hokeah

 “Discipline doesn’t cure Asperger’s. But thanks for your concern.”  
  ― Jennifer Cook O’Toole in AsperKids

Near six months ago, maybe seven, I stopped at the video section in Reasor’s grocery store, searched rows of movies where this pen sat on the edge of a narrow shelf. Its silver lettering (Perry’s Pest Control, 918-456-0983, The Critter Getter of Tahlequah, Oklahoma), and the large, round size of the pen’s body grabbed my attention—more so the matched silver clasp and tip and clicker; too, the body was earthy brown, near copper I’d say, so I picked up both the pen and the movie behind it:  Dance Me Outside.

At home I slid the movie into my VCR, made a pitcher of that too-sweet-tea, and fell into my recliner. My daughter, Yolanda, called Sissy, walked into the house quietly and sat on the couch.  I didn’t bother to turn around because I was reading the names off the opening credits.  The phone chimed with a rolling beep across the room, forcing Sissy to hop from the couch like a broken spring tearing from beneath our tattered cushions.  She snatched the phone off the wall jack, pulled the long wire to one side, and said the name of some boy into the receiver.  Tank she called him, but come to find out his name was Toby, figured.  She paused when it wasn’t that boy, said, “No, I don’t speak Spanish.”  She listened to whoever was on the other end of the line until the person finished speaking and then, rudely, she hung up the phone without saying goodbye.  The word Spanish made me think of my husband and I wanted to ask something terrible.  Instead I kept watching Dance Me Outside.

My son, Carlos, who made his friends call him Carl, came home forty or forty-five minutes later, could have been thirty. The movie was not over yet, I’m certain of that.  Sissy told Carl she got a phone call about their father passing away.  I quickly glanced away from the movie and at my children.  Carl shrugged his shoulders as he lifted his brow.  The same way his father lifted his brow.  He informed us that he had gotten a job at Greenleaf Nursery—a three hundred acre plant nursery twenty minutes outside of Tahlequah, across the highway from Lake Tenkiller, tucked away deep in the Ozark hills.  Sissy took this moment to announce that she was four months pregnant.  It unnerved me more so than their father’s death, maybe less so, but too much news made me shake.  I pushed the stop button on the VCR and went into my room, where I took this pen out of my back pocket to place it on the dresser until the next morning.

The summer began with a heat that doubled my electric bill, humid enough to buy a new sweat rag every other week. Oklahoma was an out-of-control broiler.  Though I lost a few pounds, I could have stood to lose a few more, especially around the middle where my shirts clung to certain, larger areas, like when I walked.  Sometimes I carried files, rushing, to other departments at W.W. Hastings Indian Hospital, where I filed in the medical records department, every day for nearly ten years, maybe nine.  I spent most days printing labels in a back room, pasting those labels into countless files on countless people living inside and outside of Tahlequah.  Mostly Cherokees from nearby, but other tribes also, like Creeks and Seminoles, or mixed tribes, like myself, half Kiowa and half Cherokee.  It’s not uncommon, too, for people in this part of Oklahoma to be mixed with white and black, and occasionally like my children who were half Mexican.  Their father was a seasonal farm worker from Chihuahua, Mexico until we married and he stayed, until he changed and went back.  All this came to me when I crossed my daughter’s file, not too long after her announcement (Yolanda Chavez, DOB: 7/15/1979), only sixteen-years-old and she had her first prenatal appointment.  I pasted the label for the day of the appointment onto her appointment sheet and slid the file back onto the shelf with the thousands of others.  I was going to be a grandmother before my fortieth birthday.  Today is my birthday.  I write today as I have on every birthday.  This time I didn’t have sheet paper.  Instead I found this roll of half used paper towels in the back seat of my car.

The disappointment of Sissy getting pregnant at sixteen held my tongue to the roof of my mouth and my lips air tight. It was my daughter who made the first comment about this pen and she said that it was ugly and reminded her of a rolled turtle spread across a country road, might know.  I hardly noticed the scratches on the pen’s side and if I had been talking to her I would have told her it was my pen so she didn’t need an opinion.  Maybe this was what she wanted, since there were moments in the evenings before bed when she would ask me if she should be showing more and if her stretch marks would go away.   “Why did the nausea stop and the heartburn start?” she’d ask, “Would my hips get too wide and why were my breasts so tender?”  Last summer her body changed with the heat until both were unbearable.  She asked if I wanted to feel the baby move and wanted me to see her belly button sticking out.  Instead of answering I’d pour myself a glass of tea and go into my room.  At times a sob slipped from under her breath and other times air seeped from between her gritted teeth.  Either way I entered my room to place my favorite pen on the dresser, leaving my daughter to sit by the phone and wait for this Tank person to not call.  He never did.  Well, maybe not never, but almost never.  It might as well have been never.  Then again, I guess it was.

In the evenings, I watched my shows on television, and Carl walked through the front door around five thirty. He always took a nap for an hour or so.  Since the days of working under the sun cooked him into submission.  It broiled him from a light skin to an earthy copper to a dark brown.  He had little energy until after his nap and dinner.  Like Sissy, he had only ugly words about my favorite pen, said, “You’re going to be one of those hoarders in your old age.”  After I responded, “Do what?” he added, “Get rid of it already.”  Nonsense to my ears as far as I was concerned, seeing that he had no use for a pen like mine anyhow.  Besides, he had his adventures at Greenleaf Nursery to fill his time, where he met a Cherokee man that was half Creek.  My son liked to call him Boo Right.  At first I thought he said Bull Rights, near appropriate, but from what I understood Boo Right was a playful variation from Barnett, the man’s last name.  I’m not sure how my son came up with that one.  Anyway, he liked the company of this man that was twenty years older than him.  By my estimation he was the kind to jump over to Arkansas, get himself a tattoo, and come back strutting around like a chicken dancer at contest.  Turned out Boo Right was an ex-con who charmed my son with comments like, “I get the urge to attack people,” or “sometimes you just have to fight.”  He often inserted, “stupid,” into every sentence, like, “my knuckles, stupid, are begging for a brawl.”  I only wished that my son would not repeat this new friend since his father often used similar words.  The two drove around the three hundred acres of Greenleaf Nursery on something called a wingding and pulled orders, which I took to mean picking up plants of various sizes from small half gallon buckets of flowers to large fifteen gallon buckets with trees.  He routinely tried to out-lift this new friend with the heavier plants so his muscles always ached.  He wore a back brace, gloves, and goggles, using a face mask for the areas with chemical spray.  Before he left to go hang out with his friends, he showered, and I continued to watch my shows.

Sometimes I had to turn the television up too loud because I could not stand to hear my daughter on the telephone, chatting away with this Tank person, or her friends about this Tank person. It was more the excuses from him and the near begging from her, when he refused to come to the house and visit, when she believed his lies about the reasons.  It made me shamed, because her father used similar words and similar lies with empty promises to top it off.  I almost said something when he, this Tank, told her that he had a surprise for her birthday and she became excited enough to almost hug me.  She skipped around the living room with her round stomach leading the way.  He would be by the house and spend the entire day with her, supposedly.  The surprise, unfortunately, for her, was that her birthday came and went without any word from that Tank person.  Not until later in the evening when he called to tell her that he was having car trouble.  Her eyes were red from crying.  Bags under those eyes.  Tissue littered her room.  She told him, “It’s okay,” holding her hand to her chest, clinching her shirt, pressing her fist, adding, “I understand.”  I wanted to snatch the phone and yell into the receiver, “You are worthless!” and hang up and then yell at my daughter, “Forget about him!” and hold her, saying, “You’re too good and too beautiful.”  Instead I turned up the television when she laughed at one of his jokes and chatted with him as if he had done nothing at all.

On my lunches at work, I would go down to the basement floor of the Indian Hospital, where the dental department was located, and I sat outside on a patio at the only table in this area. I always drank exactly one can of Pepsi and thought about my son on his lunches at Greenleaf Nursery.  When he made his lunches in the mornings he made six sandwiches, three for himself, three for his friend.  He packed two twenty ounce bottles of diet Mountain Dew so he could share his lunch along with his time sitting in his car, in the parking lot, in the broiling afternoon sun.  He told me about the lunch when news broke through the radio to tell him and his new friend about the Oklahoma City bombing.  Initially, he thought the announcer was lying to impress the audience, mistaking the announcer’s nervous pitch as fake.  “Cheap guy,” my son said.  It was too farfetched to believe so he said back to the radio, “You don’t have to lie.”  I took that to mean it was like the War of the Worlds radio show of the 1930s, maybe the 40s, when radio announcers inadvertently tricked people into believing the planet was being invaded by aliens.  This time there was no trickery.  Oklahoma City had been bombed.  I heard of the bombing later in the evening on the news after work, just before my son told me the story of his lunch at Greenleaf Nursery.  I never understood, and likely never will, how men abused men and then called children collateral damage.  There were times when I would think of him at his lunch, while on my own, until I finished my can of Pepsi and went back upstairs to the medical records department so that I could type and paste labels for the files.

Routinely, toward the end of the summer, when my daughter was seven months along, she began to talk in detail about everything even though I chose not to respond. This did not stop her from gushing about how Tank owned a brand new truck, had his own apartment at seventeen, and would inherit his father’s auto-body shop.  I cared little about how Tank led stomp dances and had the best turkey call east of the Ozark timberline, or how he had his own stick ball team.  I certainly didn’t want to hear about him playing basketball for the University of Oklahoma with a full scholarship.  Instead I wanted to know why he never introduced himself to me and why he never came around to see my daughter now that her stomach was bigger than the water tower on the Sequoyah high school grounds.  Mostly, I wanted to know why my daughter let someone lie to her so often.  I wanted to know so much but my tongue was trapped behind my teeth and stuck to the roof of my mouth.

When my son spoke about his new friend, Boo Right, it often had something to do with the time he spent in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Come to find out that it was located in McAlister, come to find out it was nicknamed Big Mac, come to find out Boo Right spent exactly eleven years, nine months, and three days incarcerated.  My son learned all kinds of criminal behavior from this new friend, so I tuned my son out when he mentioned the various ways to “cook” methamphetamines, which he called krank.  All this even though Boo Right had nearly exploded his own heart from an addiction to that stuff.  I watched my shows instead of listening to the fact that Boo Right, who must be in his late thirties, nearly my own age, liked to fight the teenaged gang members in Stilwell after spending half the night in bars with women that my son described as “that two a.m.”  When he said that this new friend had invited him to do a little boxing in his backyard I wanted to say, “I don’t know about that,” as my son explained that he could “take” this friend and laughed.  Instead of saying, “No, you shouldn’t go,” I watched my shows.  He came home later that night with the left side of his face swollen, bruising from brow to chin by the following morning.

Unexpectedly, the first words I said to my daughter in over three months were, “Hurry up and get in the car!” She walked into the house one evening with her hands pressed to the underside of her massive belly, tears falling out of her eyes, and sobs spurting from her mouth.  Good thing she caught me before I went into my room for the night otherwise she may have never woke me up.  The doctors in the emergency room at the Indian Hospital often treated people as though they were files to be read, labeled, and put back on a shelf.  This doctor was rude, uncaring, distracted, callous, and he stared at my daughter’s file instead of her face.  He gave her medication to slow the contractions and steroids to the baby inside her so that its lungs would grow faster.  My daughter was trying to go into premature labor at seven months and the lungs were the last organ to develop.  While she lay in a hospital bed, with a gown tight over her high stomach, as I sat in a worn out chair, she explained that she had gone to the stomp grounds that evening.  She had not heard from her Tank in over two weeks.  She found his friends at the stomp that night but not him.  One of his friends explained that Tank had not been coming to the stomps for the past two months.  He spent all his time with a girl, who my daughter knew well enough to call a friend, who also knew that my daughter was pregnant.  She drove the hour long trip with contractions, nearly driving off the road several times, crying uncontrollably against her pain—more the pain in her heart rather than the pain in her stomach.  Regardless of his uncaring nature Sissy was thankful the callous doctor was able to slow her contractions.  The baby would continue to receive steroid injections so that its lungs would develop as quickly as possible.  My daughter could go into labor at any moment.  Two weeks later she did.

This was as momentous as when my son came home from work one evening and said that he was joining the army. He went on to explain that Boo Right had arrived at work that morning drunk from the night before and he nearly wrecked the wingding into a few of the greenhouses.  Once almost driving off the side of a hill.  His friend called him a bitch for the entire morning.  His friend threatened to bruise up the other side of his face.  Boo Right repeatedly taunted him with the word “squanie,” and told him that he wasn’t a “real” Cherokee because he was a half Mexican.  Not to mention that this Boo Right met up with other friends in one of the greenhouses to smoke marijuana cigarettes.  Whether to make the situation worse or to make the situation better, I’m not sure, but his friend went on lunch break and never came back.  Carl was then responsible for pulling orders by himself for the rest of the day, which meant loading and unloading all the plants without any help, tagging and organizing plants by docks and trucks, driving and searching hundreds of acres for special orders.  By the time my son came home from work he was exhausted and had decided while on the drive that he would never return to Greenleaf Nursery again.  Instead he was joining the army.

Over the next two weeks I spoke to my daughter in small bursts, like, “It’s hot outside,” or “I’m hungry,” or “There’s nothing on TV,” and she replied accordingly, which built up to longer bursts, even full sentences. By the time she went into labor I was explaining to her what she might expect while giving birth, like they would only let her eat ice chips, no matter how thirsty, and she would hurt all the way from her lower back down into her legs, even with medication.  Afterwards she would want to sleep for days, which she did, as I took care of my first grandchild, a grandson, who had my husband’s bold eyes and my downward curving lips.  In that moment I was no longer disappointed in my daughter—instead I was proud.  She did her best to find this Tank person, like calling all his friends to announce the arrival of his son, like calling his house every night for two weeks straight.  He conveniently stayed away and let his parents deal with my daughter who told her that my grandchild was not their grandchild.  Eventually these people requested a paternity test because, supposedly, my daughter only wanted to, “Take advantage of someone,” because for some reason, according to these people, my daughter, “Probably didn’t know who the real father was.”  This talk ended when she did get a paternity test and this Tank person then had child support payments due every month.

On the day that my son left for basic training, he held his nephew before an army recruiter picked him up to take him to Oklahoma City, where he would get on a bus for Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He said goodbye like he was going to the video store in Reasor’s to pick up a movie and he would be back in thirty minutes.  When we said goodbye back, we knew he would be gone longer, but pretended like he would be back soon.  I write today as I have on every birthday.  When I climbed into my car this afternoon and drove to Greenleaf Nursery, I thought about my son.  When I kept driving down the highway and headed toward Red Bird stomp grounds, I thought about my daughter until I turned around and drove back to Tahlequah.  As I sped down Stick Ross Mountain Road too fast, against bends too tight, near hills too close, with too many trees to miss one, I thought about their father.  He died nearly six months ago, with only a shoulder shrug for a goodbye.  I have not seen him in nearly ten years now, give or take, since I myself finished with his abuse but not before he taught our children how to take the same.  Today I will return this copper pen with silver lettering to the video section in Reasor’s grocery store and place it back on the narrow shelf, because I see clearly now my husband was the pen that left the ink in these paper towels which no one will ever read.