“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.” ― Dave Pelzer,
Carl stopped in front of a mask on the far right wall, gawking. I dug bloodroot to dye the gourd for its face, singed horse hair for the curls on its head, carved its crooked nose from a knot in buckeye wood. Booger masks lined the walls of my store primarily for the tourists. I’ve sold cedar flutes, ribbon shirts, beaded moccasins, and the like, going on twenty years (at Chero-Hawk Indian Store for ten of those years). In all that time, the locals, Cherokee or not, paid little attention to my traditional masks. Mostly, it was the tourists. But Carl had an eye on one booger mask as soon as he stepped foot through the door, and he gawked, tell you myself, gawked as though he seen a hundred people.
Come to find out, he was the grandson to my aunt Josie, who was the sister to my mother, Leanna. According to Cherokee clan customs, Carl was a nephew, a nephew through a first cousin I hardly knew. Guess that was how relations grew as old got older—more years, more kin. My aunt Josie went and married a Kiowa and spent most of her days living in southern Oklahoma; I never visited so I hardly seen my cousins, much less their kids. Carl, on the other hand, made himself known to me in a peculiar way. Unlike others, I listened to him, and you might say, at least how I figured, he baffled everyone.
His younger sister’s name was Yolanda, after an aunt on his father’s side—except he called her Sissy. She was two years younger than his ten. His mother, my first cousin, was nicknamed Turtle, and, from what I’ve seen, Carl took after her like a reflection on the water. Now he was named after his father. Everyone called his father by his full name, Carlos Francisco Carrillo-Chavez, who took the name on a part of a rumor in his home village down in Mexico; supposedly, his father descended from a Spanish governor.
On Stick Ross Mountain Road, going out of Tahlequah, right where a bend met Coffee Hallow Road, his family lived in a trailer park (in number two Carl told me). This was the fourth place inside a year, he said. First, Lawton, then Duncan, after Duncan came Woodall, and finally here in Tahlequah. I could only imagine how that kind of moving around affected him; unfortunately, Carl dealt with more than new faces every so many months.
Take school for example. He said the horn on the school bus made his stomach turn, souring. Sissy, come mornings, was the first one out the front door. Turtle had to shake Carl by the legs to get him up—not that it ever worked. He’d lie under the covers pretending to sleep. After the bus drove away, he would jump out of bed, run out the front door, and hide in the woods. Turtle learned that it was pointless to search for a child that knew every way to hide in trees, weeds, and shrubs. Her routine was to tell his father before she took herself to work at the Cherokee Nation convenience store. Carl told me his father cared little about schooling, so he was left on his own.
Soon enough, Carl not only got caught, but, unexpectedly, he made himself known to the entire trailer park. To his surprise, one evening, he walked out of the woods and there was a birthday party at trailer six; Sissy played in the yard with a dozen other kids. An old and dying oak tree sat at the back of that trailer park, right where the woods began; it was a roost for chickens that Carl called the chicken tree. The man that lived in trailer four took his roosters to the cock fights and this tree had around a dozen chickens that bred with those roosters. On the way out of the woods that day, Carl, the way kids do, decided the chickens were disguised witches. He had a sword made from the branch of a dead cedar so he swung it at the tree, sending leaves into the air; he had these thick curls on his head, and I can imagine those leaves getting caught in his hair. From my guess, likely, he riled up those chickens and roosters, too. “Carl!” Sissy yelled from the other side of a fence. The other kids yelled, too, and this was the first any of them knew his name.
“That was awesome,” the birthday boy yelled. The words called like a huh at the beginning of a stomp song and shell shakers moved in Carl’s chest. Sissy said, “Come over, Carl.” The next set of shells shook in the pit of his stomach. “I never go by that tree,” the birthday boy said. Eventually, his hands joined in the rhythm. Sissy said, “Nobody will hit us here.” The shell shakers shook faster and that stomp song moved through him like an echo from a hundred years back.
He stabbed that dead cedar branch into the tip of his toe and dug at his shoe. All those kids stood at the fence, some with red stained lips, others with frosting on their chins; they all waited for Carl to join the birthday party. After a while, the kids peeled away from the fence to climb onto the trampoline or eat at the table of food. He dug that branch into the tip of his shoe until the rubber tore. Sissy opened her mouth for a final try, hesitated; instead she stopped herself, and ran over to the trampoline. Jumping with her friends, she made an excuse, “Every time, he only wants to be alone.”
If he knew that trailer six was having a birthday party, he would have wiggled his way underneath the neighbor’s barbwire fence, pushed through the thicket of thorns until he made it to the ditch by the dirt road. He would have run through the standing water in the ditch until he came to the back fence around his trailer. He would have thrown himself over that fence and snuck into the trailer completely unseen.
A week after that birthday party, early morning, he sprinted down the center of the trailer park. Turtle yelled out the front door, “The boogers will snatch you from those woods and cook you for dinner!” A pile of G.I. Joes lay in the yard of trailer six. These were the birthday boy’s presents. What he did was shameful, but he acted like anyone would in his situation. While the birthday boy was in school, Carl climbed the fence, scooped up all the action figures, and hid in the woods. I’m not going to pass any judgment; since those G.I. Joes kept him busy and distracted, he stayed clear of his father, Carlos—more his unpredictable rage.
On the day that a social worker stopped by the trailer, he imagined a booger to be some sort of mud-covered witch, standing crooked and bent, disguised like an old burnt tree and waiting. Akin to a boogey man, Carl knew, and stayed inside that day, hid in a bathtub with those stolen G.I. Joes.
Waist deep in water, with the shower coming down, he sat cross-legged and placed the action figures in different spots around the bathtub. Carl said his father knocked on the door and yelled. With the shower splashing into the water, Carl hardly heard himself playing much less his father yelling. He called back with a loud, “Okay.” His father muddled a longer sentence. Carl gave him another, “Okay,” without much notice. His father pounded on the door so hard the frame shook. A call fired through the cheap wood like a gunshot. The door knob to the bathroom shook. “I’m not done yet,” Carl called back. But the door burst open anyway. Carl popped his head around the shower curtain. His father stormed into the bathroom, clutching the butter knife he had used to unlock the door.
“Get from water, now,” Carlos said, in a thick Spanish accent. He shut the door behind him. Carl knew the wrinkles in his father’s forehead, the thud of his cowboy boots, and the swelling veins on his hands said he wanted to grab him by the wrist and yank him out of the bathtub. His father aimed a finger at the door, and his hand shook, adrenaline, one, but also, his father took medication (round white pills in a brown bottle was how Carl described it). His father said, “A social worker out here.”
Quickly, Carl dried himself, as much out of fear as curiosity because he had no idea what a social worker was. With those action figures cradled in one arm, he stepped into the living room. From my guess, he was still half wet with his tee shirt and shorts stuck to his skin. A young white lady sat on the couch with a notebook and papers in her lap. Carlos sat in a discolored recliner; his jeans tucked inside his cowboy boots and a foot propped up on the opposite knee. He said with his accent getting in the way, “This is him.”
“I love your curls,” the social worker said, with one of those bright smiles to put him at ease. But Carl turned away and walked down the hallway. He went into his bedroom and dumped the G.I. Joes onto his bed. By the time the social worker came into his room, he was on knees and leaning against the mattress. She told him, “I received a call about you.”
“Why aren’t you going to school?” she asked, bending down to one knee. She tried to touch his curls, but Carl flinched, so she paused. The social worker explained how some kids “act out” when they are being abused and other kids “close in.” These words were confusing so he shrugged. She went on to explain about good touch and bad touch. The more she explained the more his face twisted with disgust. When she asked if his father touched him, Carl blurted out, “No.” But when she asked if he ever hit him, Carl focused on separating the action figures.
The social worker took a card from her pocket and laid it on the mattress. She ran her fingers through his wet curls and this time Carl didn’t flinch. She fought back tears. Her heavy footsteps hurried down the hallway and passed Carlos in the living room. The entire trailer shook when she slammed the front door behind her.
“You make me in jail, stupid,” his father said, as he leaned over Carl. On both knees, next to the bed, Carl turned away from the action figures and handed his father the social worker’s card. Carl told me about the wrinkles in his father’s forehead, veins popping out on his hands, shaking, and how his father must have wanted to sling him into a wall. Instead his father crumpled the card inside a fist and disappeared into his bedroom.
Later that evening, Carl and Sissy sat in the backseat of a squad car next to Turtle. It was the medication since he lost his kidneys, his mother claimed, as if Carlos’s aggression was explainable. His dialysis appointment was in two days, but the police officer paid little attention, and the three went to live in Tahlequah’s battered women’s shelter.
The first time Carl stopped at Chero-Hawk he hid in my store because the kids at the shelter wanted him to play Scrabble. The women’s shelter is not twenty yards from this strip of stores, so he was bound to wander in my direction. This was when he gawked at a booger mask on the far right wall for nearly half an hour.
“My brothers and sisters had a meanness that made the devil himself blush,” I told Carl that day, doing my best to get his attention. He fidgeted just enough to let me know that he was listening; still he kept his focus on that mask. I called out, “I was teased and harassed by six of them.”
Youngest of seven, I had four brothers and two sisters. My family moved into a new home, not necessarily new, but rented—I was a few years younger than Carl back then, barely past seven. There was a massive locust tree smack in the middle of the front yard. You know how those locust tree seedpods are long and narrow, hanging from branches like snakes or fingers, turning brown then black come fall. A whole mess of these seedpods lay in the front yard, underneath that locust tree. Nothing inside me wanted anything to do with that tree—more the creepy seedpods reaching down as if to grab me.
To make it worse, my brothers liked to pelt the seeds at my face; once they pinned me on the ground and shoved pods into my mouth. My sisters were clever, not so much as brutal like my brothers. One sister distracted me at the dinner table while the other slipped a seedpod onto my food. I climb into bed one night, and, when I was almost asleep, I brushed my foot across a seedpod. Every time I screamed, and I screamed so much and so often that my mother told me I had a high pitch that would make a little girl jealous, eventually she had enough.
You can imagine how I reacted when I walked in the kitchen and seen a bucket full of those locust tree seedpods. My inclination was I caught my brothers and sisters in a plot to do something malicious. I ran into the living room, calling for my mother—ready to tattle, tell, and cry—but there was an old man sitting on the couch. He held this heavy coffee colored cane at his side. His skin had the texture of a turtle’s hide. His jaw seemed to hang lower than normal. My mother was at the store, he told me, introduced himself as an uncle, he claimed, a Bird Clan member, someone distant but a relative. He spoke like he had a mouthful of food, slow, almost a mumble, so I nearly misunderstood when he said the bucket of seedpods were his.
The reason I followed him into the kitchen had to do with how he teetered on the coffee colored cane, as he lifted himself from the couch, the even and deliberate pace when he moved foot-to-cane, foot-to-cane, and how his long jaw gave him a silly smile, wide, broad, with deep creases in his cheeks.
Next thing I knew, he had the seedpods spilled onto the counter. His cane was hooked over the edge of the sink next to him, in case he might get dizzy and decide to save himself. I stood behind him, beside his shoulder, for the same reason. Not that I would have been able to do much if he did fall, being a child. We both would have ended up with broken hips. Good thing he stayed on his feet. He popped open pods and made a pile of the seeds, and I stood at his side.
As he worked, he told me about booger masks; how the masks were used and how there used to be a traditional dance. I listened more out of politeness—my mother would have been upset if I offended an elder relative. He described how dancers snuck out of the woods on a feast day celebration, wearing the booger masks. The dancers scared everyone at the gathering, yelled at them, postured, made threats; it was all done in mocking and primarily for laughter. They pretended to grab the women, pretended to fight the men, who pretended to fight off the dancers. They fled into the woods and swore to return on another day.
In all his years, he had never seen Cherokees do this dance; he called it a forgotten memory, and said only a few made the booger masks.
After that old man separated all the seeds from the pods, he told me to go get a grocery bag that he left on the front porch. He reached into the bag and took out this piece of wood carved from a poplar tree. He also took out a small bowl filled with tree sap, to use like paste. The split pods became big lips. In half, the split pods made for thick eyebrows. His hands were wide, fingers long, skin pale, covered in spots. Even though he would tremor slightly, his hands moved with strength as he formed the booger mask. He pasted clumps of the seeds together to make round eyeballs. After that, he stuck a row of seeds between the lips to make teeth, but left out a couple of teeth to give it this crooked smile. The last thing he did was cut a pile of pods in half, fastened them to the top of the head, giving the booger mask this spiky hair that stood straight up.
There was something funny when a child acted like an adult, more importantly, on that day, when an adult acted like a child. That old man lifted the mask to his face. Maybe it was the way he held the mask off angle, maybe it was how his wrinkled fingers shook, but I never laughed so hard. A few moments later, my mother pulled into the driveway. I ran outside with that mask in my hands, to show my mother what the old man gave me as a gift. Placing the booger mask against my own face, guess where I stopped and stood: Underneath that locust tree, on top of the brown and black seedpods.
“A booger mask helped me overcome a fear,” I told Carl on the day he gawked at one on the far right wall. I asked him, “Do you have any fears?”
And Carl told me about living in the shelter, and how he had displaced his family.
Shortly, a week and two days, precisely, after the visit where Carl and I swapped stories, Turtle managed to get him and Sissy out of the women’s shelter. An apartment opened up at those low rent duplexes called Cherokee Village. She wouldn’t have had the money if not for a program funded by the Oklahoma state, where Turtle was paid a stipend every month to attend vocational school. She enrolled in the general office clerk classes out there at Bill Willis Skill Center. She also enrolled Carl and Sissy in Sequoyah Elementary, right behind my store, here, across the alley.
On his first day at Sequoyah, Turtle laid his cloths on the edge of his bed, told him to wake up and get ready for school. Carl lay underneath the covers in his room, not exactly asleep and not exactly awake, either. Turtle came to sit on the edge of his bed. Things could be different, with nobody around to hit him. In order to take care of the family Carl had to go to school; if Turtle had more than three absences, the Skill Center would ask her to leave. She laid a hand on his leg, rubbed his calf, and said, “Please, don’t do this, Carl.”
He flipped around under the covers and pulled the blanket over his head.
Turtle kicked the side of the bed. She slammed the door. The tires on her car screeched when she pulled into the street, taking Sissy to school—Carl thought. An hour or so later, Carl sat on the bedroom floor surrounded by G.I. Joes when he heard his mother drive back up to the apartment. A second car parked in the next space over; the engine ran smoother, cleaner, it was a new car, for certain. Two car doors opened and shut. Turtle spoke with someone, a lady, as she climbed the front steps.
The way Carl explained, he tried to ignore the banter in the living room, the footsteps coming down the hallway, unscrewing the screws on the backs of his action figures, pulling them all apart. Heads lay in one pile, legs in another, arms stacked together, and a mound of chests.
A white lady, six inches taller than his mother, led Turtle into the bedroom. She introduced herself as the school principle, Mrs. Edwards, and extended her hand. From the floor, Carl turned up, cringed at the size of her fingers, and then turned away. Not to mention all her bright makeup gave her peculiar shadows and plastic looking skin. She pulled her hand back, straightened herself, and let out a huff.
“Get in the car, you will go to class,” Mrs. Edwards said. She bit her lip and squinted, and I imagine with a little arrogance. “Or I will call the police,” she told him.
The principle and Turtle, both, followed him down the front steps. Carl put on a backpack in reverse, held against his chest, arms underneath the straps. He clutched it tight from the front steps to the backseat, from Cherokee Village to Sequoyah Elementary. When Turtle parked at the rear of the school, across the alley, in that narrow gravel lot, Carl buried his face into the backpack’s rough fabric, even deeper once the principle parked alongside.
Voices carried from the rear of the cars, talking, his mother and the principle, initially, and then male voices joined in the conversation. Carl turned around to see out the back window. Three men, teachers, stood with Turtle and Mrs. Edwards. One was tall and broad, his arms long. Another wore gym clothes (tight shirt and athletic shorts). The other had thick arms that bowed away from his round body.
Since his mother’s car faced the back of my store and the women’s shelter, Carl shifted between both – his eyes watering. Chero-Hawk Indian Store and the battered women shelter were more like mirages, from my guess, like the watery spots down a long and straight road. He buried his face, again, into the backpack; the fabric slid across his forehead, nose, and cheeks, wiping the tears.
The passenger door opened. The front seat buckled forward. His mother stood outside, and said, “Okay, Carl, you need to go to class.”
Mrs. Edwards said, “Guys, let’s not drag this out.”
The tallest teacher reached into the backseat, grabbed him by the arm. Carl twisted and pulled away. He grabbed Carl again, this time with a better grip, and the teacher pulled him halfway out of the backseat. The other two teachers latched onto his jeans and shirt. Carl pressed a foot into the bottom of the folded front seat and locked his leg. One of the teachers yanked against the back of his leg and buckled his knee forward. Carl did the same with his arm, pressed his palm into the back window. His elbow buckled the same as his knee. Before he could grab onto the side of the door, it was shut behind him.
The teachers released him and Carl fell against the side of his mother’s car. The backpack still in his arms, he pushed against the tears with his palms. Hands on their hips, heads turned up, the three teachers tried to catch their breaths. Mrs. Edwards stood at the rear of the cars, her arms crossed and folded, examining. Turtle hid her tears by studying the gravel rocks at her feet.
Before anyone had the chance to transition out of that ordeal, Carl darted away from the parked cars. That backpack still in his arms. He sprinted down the alley. Sequoyah Elementary on his left, the women’s shelter on his right, he left them all in the gravel parking lot.
Carl circled back around the block, made his way to Chero-Hawk without anyone noticing. His mother, the principle, and the teachers searched the neighborhood before they came to this strip of stores. I gave him a glass of water, and tissue for his eyes and nose. He had plenty of time to tell me what had happened before his mother stepped through the door to my shop.
You know how you pause when you recognize someone? I must have paused just like that, mouth open and dumbstruck. But Carl’s mother grabbed him by the hand and led him toward the door without returning any recognition.
“Wait,” I called, and hurried across the store, nearly knocking over a buffalo headdress. I pulled that booger mask off the far right wall. I handed the mask to Carl, and said, “This belongs to you.”
The last I seen of Carl was his eyes growing wide as he admired his gift.
Its peculiar how time, like masks, will make us reclaim the best of who we were and purge the worst of what we’ve become.