THE BLACK-EYE-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB
I was born with water on the brain.
Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weirdo me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded.
My brain was drowning in grease.
But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, “I was born with water on the brain.”
Okay, so maybe that’s not a very serious way to say it, either. Maybe the whole thing is weird and funny.
But, jeez, did my mother and father and big sister and grandma and cousins and aunts and uncles think it was funny when the doctors cut open my little skull and sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum?
I was only six months old and I was supposed to croak during the surgery. And even if I somehow survived the mini-Hoover, I was supposed to suffer serious brain damage during the procedure and live the rest of my life as a vegetable.
Well, I obviously survived the surgery. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t, but I have all sorts of physical problems that are directly the result of my brain damage.
First of all, I ended up having forty-two teeth. The typical human has thirty-two, right? But I had forty-two.
Ten more than usual.
Ten more than normal.
Ten teeth past human.
My teeth got so crowded that I could barely close my mouth. I went to Indian Health Service to get some teeth pulled so I could eat normally, not like some slobbering vulture. But the Indian Health Service funded major dental work only once a year, so I had to have all ten extra teeth pulled in one day.
And what’s more, our white dentist believed that Indians felt only half as much pain as white people did, so he gave us only half the Novocain.
What a bastard, huh?
Indian Health Service also funded eyeglass purchases only once a year and offered one style: those ugly, thick, black plastic ones.
My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other, so my ugly glasses were all lopsided because my eyes were so lopsided.
I got headaches because my eyes were, like, enemies, you know, like they used to be married to each other but then hated each other’s guts.
And I started wearing glasses when I was three, so I ran around the reservation (the rez!) looking like a three-year-old Indian grandpa.
And, oh, I was skinny. I’d turn sideways and disappear.
But my hands and feet were huge. My feet were a size eleven when I was in third grade!
With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.
And my skull was enormous.
My head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it. Some of the kids called me Orbit. And other kids just called me Globe. The bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their fingers down on my skull, and say, “I want to go there.”
So obviously, I looked goofy on the outside, but it was the inside stuff that was the worst.
First of all, I had seizures. The doctors gave me medicine for them. It was this pill called Phenobarbital, which is, like, this major sedative, so I was a junkie before I could even walk. I had to crawl across the floor in my diapers to get my fix.
Those seizures can damage your brain.
But the thing is, I was having those seizures because I already had brain damage, so I was reopening wounds each time I seized.
Yep, whenever I had a seizure, I was damaging my damage.
I haven’t had a seizure in seven years, but the doctors tell me that I am “susceptible to seizure activity.”
Isn’t that one of the worst phrases you’ve ever heard?
Susceptible to seizure activity.
Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue like poetry?
I also had a stutter and a lisp. Or maybe I should say I had a st-st-st-st-stutter and a lissssssssththththp.
You wouldn’t think there is anything life threatening about speech impediments, but let me tell you, there is nothing more dangerous than being a kid with a stutter and a lisp.
A five-year-old is cute when he lisps and stutters. Heck, most of the big-time kid actors stuttered and lisped their way to stardom.
And, jeez, you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.
After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.
And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you become the biggest retard in the world.
Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.
I’m not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard.
Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?
We get beat up.
At least once a month.
Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.
Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it is safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons.
Here’s one of me:
I draw all the time.
I draw cartoons of my mother and father; my sister and grand-mother; my best friend, Rowdy; and everybody else on the rez.
I draw because words are too unpredictable.
I draw because words are too limited.
If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning.
But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.
If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman, and child in the world can look at it and say, “That’s a flower.”
So I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. I feel important with a pen in my hand. I feel like I might grow up to be somebody important. An artist. Maybe a famous artist. Maybe a rich artist.
That’s the only way I can become rich and famous.
Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists. They’re singers and actors and writers and dancers and directors and poets.
So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.
I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.
WHY CHICKEN MEANS SO MUCH TO ME
Okay, so now you know that I’m a cartoonist. And I think I’m pretty good at it, too. But no matter how good I am, my cartoons will never take the place of food or money. I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, or perform some magic trick and make it real. But I can’t do that. Nobody can do that, not even the hungriest magician in the world.
I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.
Do you know the worst thing about being poor? Oh, maybe you’ve done the math in your head and you figure:
Poverty = empty refrigerator + empty stomach
And sure, sometimes my family misses a meal, and sleep is the only thing we have for dinner, but I know that, sooner or later, my parents will come bursting through the door with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And hey, in a weird way, being hungry makes food taste better. There is nothing better than a chicken leg when you haven’t eaten for (approximately) eighteen-and-a-half hours. And believe me, a good piece of chicken can make anybody believe in God.
So hunger is not the worst thing about being poor.
And now I’m sure you’re asking, “Okay, okay, Mr. Hunger–Artist, Mr. Mouth-Full-of-Words, Mr. Woe-is-Me, Mr. Secret–Recipe, what is the worst thing about being poor?”
So, okay, I’ll tell you the worst thing.
Last week, my best friend, Oscar, got really sick.
At first, I thought he just had heat exhaustion or something. I mean, it was a crazy-hot July day (102 degrees with 90 percent humidity), and plenty of people were falling over from heat exhaustion, so why not a little dog wearing a fur coat?
I tried to give him some water, but he didn’t want any of that.
He was lying on his bed with red, watery, snotty eyes. He whimpered in pain. When I touched him, he yelped like crazy.
It was like his nerves were poking out three inches from his skin.
I figured he’d be okay with some rest, but then he started vomiting, and diarrhea blasted out of him, and he had these seizures where his little legs just kicked and kicked and kicked.
And sure, Oscar was only an adopted stray mutt, but he was the only living thing that I could depend on. He was more dependable than my parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and big sister. He taught me more than any teachers ever did.
Honestly, Oscar was a better person than any human I had ever known.
“Mom,” I said. “We got to take Oscar to the vet.”
“He’ll be all right,” she said.
But she was lying. Her eyes always got darker in the middle when she lied. She was a Spokane Indian and a bad liar, which didn’t make any sense. We Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.
“He’s really sick, Mom,” I said. “He’s going to die if we don’t take him to the doctor.”
She looked hard at me. And her eyes weren’t dark anymore, so I knew that she was going to tell me the truth. And trust me, there are times when the last thing you want to hear is the truth.
“Honey,” Mom said. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have no money for Oscar.”
“I’ll pay you back,” I said. “I promise.”
“Honey, it’ll cost hundreds of dollars, maybe a thousand.”
“I’ll pay back the doctor. I’ll get a job.”
Mom smiled all sad and hugged me hard.
Jeez, how stupid was I? What kind of job can a reservation Indian boy get?
I was too young to deal blackjack at the casino; there were only about fifteen green grass lawns on the reservation (and none of their owners outsourced the mowing jobs), and the only paper route was owned by a tribal elder named Wally. And he had to deliver only fifty papers, so his job was more like a hobby.
There was nothing I could do to save Oscar.
So I lay down on the floor beside him and patted his head and whispered his name for hours.
Then Dad came home from wherever and had one of those long talks with Mom, and they decided something without me.
And then Dad pulled down his rifle and bullets from the closet.
“Junior,” he said. “Carry Oscar outside.”
“No!” I screamed.
“He’s suffering,” Dad said. “We got to help him.”
“You can’t do it!” I shouted.
I wanted to punch my Dad in the face. I wanted to punch him in the nose and make him bleed. I wanted to punch him in the eye and make him blind. I wanted to kick him in the balls and make him pass out.
I was hot mad. Volcano mad. Tsunami mad.
Dad just looked down at me with the saddest look in his eyes. He was crying. He looked weak.
I wanted to hate him for his weakness.
I wanted to hate Dad and Mom for our poverty.
I wanted to blame them for my sick dog and for all the other sickness in the world.
But I can’t blame my parents for our poverty because my mother and father are the twin suns around which I orbit and my world will EXPLODE without them.
And it’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.
Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.
Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.
Given the chance, my mother would have gone to college.
She still reads books like crazy. She buys them by the pound. And she remembers everything she reads. She recites whole pages by memory. She is a human tape recorder. Really. She reads the newspaper in fifteen minutes and tells me baseball scores, the location of every war, the latest guy to win the lottery, and the high temperature in Des Moines, Iowa.
Given the chance, my father would have been a musician.
When he gets drunk, he sings old country songs. And blues, too. And he sounds good. Like a pro. Like he should be on the radio. He plays the guitar and the piano a little bit. And he has this old saxophone from high school that he keeps all clean and shiny, like he’s going to join a band at any moment.
But we reservation Indians don’t get those chances. We don’t get choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.
So, poor and small and weak, I picked up Oscar. He licked my face because he loved and trusted me. And I carried him out to the lawn, and I laid him down beneath our green apple tree.
“I love you, Oscar,” I said.
He looked at me and I swear to you that he understood what was happening. He knew what Dad was going to do. But Oscar wasn’t scared. He was relieved.
But not me.
I ran away as fast as I could.
I wanted to run faster than the speed of sound, but nobody, no matter how much pain they’re in, can run that fast. So I heard the boom of my father’s rifle when he shot my best friend.
A bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian