FICTION: Rust Never Sleeps

Once, back in 1967, I met Black Elk's brother.

We drove up to South Dakota, me and Frank Two Bulls, his edgy, beautiful girlfriend Marissa and some Navajo guy who never talked and a Cheyenne named Stanley who never shut up.

We hooked up in a bar on the wrong side of Houston where the invisible urban Indians of that menacing and unforgiving city congregate. All of us were just passing through and had plenty of time to get to our vague and sometimes nonexistent destinations.

I knew Frank from Korea. I liked him some but not a lot. He had a reputation for screwing up during his watch on the radar and blaming it on the weather, mechanical failure, or some other reason besides his own ineptitude. We met purely by accident on West Reno, and he talked me into having a drink for old times sake at this dive he knew. We drove there in a shiny green Pontiac that he had purchased earlier that day, and our first stop was at a beauty parlor to pick up Marissa.

She wore a red dress that seemed to have been applied with some amazing new technology just developed by the space program. When Marissa nestled into those matching green bucket seats it made you think of Christmas.

Frank's bar was called The Explorer's Club. The hours passed, as they will, and by then our party had been joined by Stanley and the Navajo. Stanley revealed himself to be a Roadman for the Native American Church. He spoke, at great length, of a meeting up in South Dakota that could change all of our lives if we would only hear the truth and give him a ride north.

I was plastered by then, and remember only two things of our journey; the ferocious Texas sunrise, cruel and blistering and turning my bad hangover into a hellish one; and much later, when I woke to find Marissa sleeping on my shoulder. I held my breath for miles.

We crossed into South Dakota at dusk, and Frank, who said he knew this reservation and most others like the back of his hand, got us lost three times. Marissa became less and less amused, rolling her eyes as Frank promised once again that we were just a few minutes away. Telepathically I sent her urgent messages about my brilliant navigational skills, my favorable employment prospects, and my hopes and dreams of our life together. With me, I told her, you would never be lost.

Finally we stopped. When Frank killed the engine, silence rushed in, followed by the sound of ten thousand crickets. I looked out the window.

The house was a shotgun shack, covered with tarpaper and neglect. A broken car from the Second World War rusted in the front yard. An old man stood alone in the starlight, waiting patiently as we fumbled our way out of the Pontiac.

When he called out, in a serene voice that sounded like equal parts buffalo grass and transmission fluid, even the crickets stopped to listen.

"Bet you-all would like some supper now, wouldn't you?"

This was Ben Black Elk. He looked about a hundred and ten years old.

Paul Chaat Smith
March 1997

A Nation to Nation event in collaboration with Oboro and Circle Vision Arts Corporation