“Ilpohechatoka!” by Anthony Spaeth

11Aug11

From: fbattise@actribe.org
To: knewton@cchs.org
CC:
Subject: names

Dear Kent:

Thank you so much for your interest in the Coushatta culture. I really appreciated your hyper-inquisitive email. Of course, we don’t actually live in teepees. In fact, we never did, because we are not Plains Indians. That’s a completely different culture. It would be like asking a Norwegian how he keeps his igloo warm. The only teepees I have ever seen are the fiberglass ones we sell at the “native arts” store. To be frank, I don’t even know what a fucking wigwam is, so I don’t have anything to say about that.

Anyway, it’s apparent from your email that you’ve seen a couple of cowboy movies and therefore think we “Indians” get our names from the first things our mothers see after we’re born. Wow. I don’t even know where to begin with that one because it’s so ridiculously ignorant. The actual truth is we never used to give babies names at all. In the old days, we just called babies “poskoosi” (which means baby) until they did something special, and then we would start calling them that, sort of like what you would call a nickname. For example, when my great-great-grandfather was little, he kicked some embers over in the fire and burned his house down. He ran away into the woods and the whole village saw him go. So they called him Waliika, which means “Running Away.”

But the other thing most people don’t understand about traditional Coushatta names is that you’re not stuck with the same one forever. You can reinvent yourself, so to speak. If you do something really memorable, it sort of wipes out the old name and replaces it with a new one. Like, by the time my great-great-grandfather was old, people had stopped calling him “Running Away” and started calling him “Two Feathers” because he was very proud of the fact that he had the right to wear two egret feathers in his hair—one for each white man he had killed.

Yours truly,
Ford Battise

* * *

From: fbattise@actribe.org
To: knewton@cchs.org
CC:
Subject: names

Dear Kent:

You and your mother will be happy to know I’m in Mrs. Gandy’s D-Hall. Principal Davidson has duly reprimanded me for my email concerning Coushatta naming traditions, which he said carried with it an implicit threat. Ms. Mahala lectured me on the fact that I ought to be more aware of my own flaws, forgiving toward others, and generally thicker-skinned. According to her, it was a sin for me to be so snippy and quick to judge. She suggested that maybe you really didn’t know how we named our kids. Maybe you were genuinely curious about us, but just not so careful with your words. God, she’s dingy. It’s like talking to a stump. It just goes to show you, Kent, you don’t have to be very smart to teach high school.

Anyway, I’ve been given two weeks detention to reconsider my epistolary crimes and misdemeanors. That ought to teach me to tell true stories about my great-great-grandfather. At least, I presume they were true. Who can really say, Kent? Not me. Not you. We weren’t there or anything. We’ve just heard about it, you know?

But let me take this opportunity to further elaborate on the Coushatta culture so that we, separated by some seventy miles of Highway 59, including numerous strip malls, video stores, and natural gas wells, can better understand one another. We Coushatta are a backwards and hidebound people. We’re practically in Louisiana, for God’s sake. But for all our Luddite idiosyncrasies, still we have magic picture tubes in our living rooms. This medicine is big heap strong, Kent. Using our magic windows, we can view all the Jews and blacks and busty blondes of the outside world. In fact, this medicine is so powerful that we Coushatta already know the jokes that have been made about the subtle, austere, occasionally drunken redskins; in a perversely post-modern twist, we Coushatta have appropriated these stereotypes for our own misuse. We are thoroughly westernized in this respect, Kent: We not only recognize and abhor our pathetic, Stone Age culture, we also wonder why we are flagellating ourselves over it since everyone else is pretty much just as fucked up as we are. If not even more so. The fact is, Kent, we sometimes make fun of our own naming traditions. Get it?

The relevance of the following will become apparent to you about mid-way through the second paragraph, so be patient. I have two friends. Their names are Christopher and Becky. Christopher Ryman and Rebecca Bryce. Two Christian-named friends who are, in fact, both Christians, or at least have been at some point nominally and perfunctorily baptized. Each friend also professes some abstract belief in Christ’s paternity, divinity, resurrection, etc. His wisdom. His teachings. They are aware, in broad strokes, of the Sermon on the Mount and St. John’s apocalyptic writings. But they can’t tell you a goddamn thing about the Great Spirit or the Twin Manifestations, Kent. Ask them about that and you’ll get a blank look. “Yeah, I think my old nana used to talk about that crazy shit with the birds or whatever.” That’s what they’d tell you if you asked. Because the Twin Manifestations are two herons—mirror images of each other—that more or less track the Taoist concept of yin and yang. But I digress.

Sometimes Chris and Becky and I play a very deconstructionist game with our quaint Coushatta naming tradition (see prior email). We pretend that someone’s name is whatever we would say about them if we were muttering under our breaths. You know, something mean. For instance, my mother is The Woman Who Holds Us All Hostage By Threatening To Kill Herself. And my father is Closet Homo (The Disguise Is Wearing Off). Chris’s parents are The Goddamn Village Drunk and The Goddamn Wife of the Goddamn Village Idiot. I can’t remember Becky’s parents’ names, but she has an older sister called Chief Spreads-Her-Legs. So ha-ha. Good one on us.

Anyway, you get the picture. The point I’m trying to make to you, Kent Newton, of somewhere in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, and probably of a plush five-bedroom McMansion with a kidney-shaped swimming pool, is that we Coushatta are an interesting and complex people who live fascinating lives, full of nuance and humor. We don’t wear beaded necklaces or sleep on the ground or hunt ‘em buffalo or smoke’em peace pipe. None of that is true. So, when you joke about how we name our babies “Liquor Store” and “Discount Cigarettes,” we’ve already thought of that, Kent. You’re ten years behind the curve. Maybe twenty. And you don’t even know it. Plus, our jokes are better than yours. So don’t flatter yourself, you stupid pale-faced prick.

Sincerely,
Ford Battise

* * *

From: fbattise@actribe.org
To: knewton@cchs.org
CC:
Subject: mothers

Dear Kent:

I see we have this much in common: hysterical mothers. Funny story. I was just talking to my mother in the living room. Apparently, the school district requires two parental meetings for any suspension or detention period longer than one week. Principal Davidson (“It-walks-like-a-duck”) had Mom down to his office today to talk about you and me and my grades and my progress reports and so on. And you know what she did when she got home, Kent? When she got home, she threw open the front door and she had this real wild, crazy-looking gleam in her eyes. She squints when she’s angry, Kent. That’s what she did. She squinted and she cried and she stood there in the living room and she balled up her hands and pressed them against her cheeks until they left red marks. Then she told me all about how disappointed she was. How ashamed. It really revved her up to have something to gnash her teeth about. I mean she was virtually binging on despair.

You know what she said, Kent? She said I don’t love her. She said that no one really does. She said she has eighty bucks and anyone can buy a pistol. Anyone. Go get a pistol and blow her brains out in the living room. How would I like that?

But instead of killing herself, what she did was she put her hands over her eyes and lay down on the couch and started crying. That long, inconsolable cry that is also part moan and part scream. It’s reckless, Kent. Unhinged. It sounds convincingly insane. The letter from your mother was wadded up in her hands. The Principal gave it to her. For your information. To complete the scene for you. (By the way, who the fuck uses pink stationary to lodge a complaint about someone else’s kid? Your mother must be totally fucking certifiable, Kent.)

But I have to say, I actually learned something from this whole experience. Which is why I’m writing you. Because of you and your hysterical mother, I actually grasped something valuable and new. You are my—muse is too strong and gay-sounding—you and your mother are my inadvertent teachers. Like the retard who makes you appreciate the beauty of rain or the baby who reminds you that everyone on earth spends their first two years shitting in their pants. And here it is, Kent. For many years, I’ve labored under the delusion that my mother might actually commit suicide as a result of one of my numerous misdeeds—such as ditching school or getting drunk or taking mescaline or having indiscriminate and numerous sexual partners. The Great Eagle Spirit knows Mom’s threatened to kill herself often enough. And, from the outside, I guess it would not seem like such an idle threat. She looks the part. Her hair is always frayed and messy. She’s fat and miserable. And after all, her father (tribal cop) shot himself in the mouth with his service revolver while sitting in his recliner. So you’d think she at least has it in her to pull the trigger, genetically speaking.

But now, having just spoken with her about my reprehensible behavior toward you, I realize Mom just doesn’t have the guts to take it all the way. She’ll talk about doing it, sure. Threaten to kill herself until she’s blue in the face. But she’ll never really hang herself or swallow glass or whatever else she’s got planned. There’s nothing for me to fear about that. Because she’ll never really do it, not on my account, no matter what I do. She just doesn’t care that much about other people. She’s into her own thing, Kent, which is sitting around feeling screwed because the world has fucked her over. It doesn’t really have much to do with you or me or Principal Davidson. We’re just props in her show.

And you, Kent Newton, of the National Honor Society and the JV football team, are to thank for that realization. Which occurred as follows: Mom, couch-bound and disheveled, said I didn’t love her and this deal with you proved it. My anti-social behavior. My unwillingness to listen. My contempt for adults, especially her. She said I was nicer to my friends than I was to her, even though my friends were really not my friends and were always getting me in trouble. Something like that, Kent. I can’t remember exactly. I was kind of on autopilot at the time.

Anyway, she went on and on about how my grades were tanking and how I was heading down the wrong path by threatening that white boy from Houston. Her anger was in full bloom, Kent. Someone unfamiliar with her would probably have thought she was on meth or something. She was that spun up. She stood. She flailed her arms around the living room while she was yelling. She did this thing where she was opening and closing her hands a lot, unconsciously, for no apparent reason. There was no talking her off the ledge, Kent. She was going to kill herself for sure this time.

And that’s when it dawned on me that the only thing she had over me was the threat to kill herself. Because, beyond that, I really didn’t give a shit. About her. About the alleged consequences of my actions. I’d heard it all before, you know? A few times. But it was then, as she lunged toward me, screaming, her voice gone hoarse, that I recognized she was basically right. I really didn’t love her much at all. Not much. I preferred the company of others. Almost anyone other than her. Because she never joked. She never made me laugh. All she ever talked about was her crappy job. Her crappy husband. Her crappy house. Her crappy life. She was just this black hole, Kent. Everything everywhere was being sucked toward her maw so that it could be destroyed. And nothing in the world was ever going to fix her, Kent. She didn’t want to die. Not really. What she really wanted was for the whole world to recognize her for her suffering. And that was just never going to happen. It was making her nuts.

So, Kent, as I sat there waiting for the latest storm to pass, waiting for her to throw me out of the room so she could experience her misery alone (all because I’d hurt the feelings of some bed-wetter on the Debate Team), I did what I have always done in those circumstances. I said I was sorry. I said I’d been wrong to email you back. I gave her a hug. I rubbed her shoulders a little. I promised to act better and to try to do what she wanted.

And I probably will do that for awhile, Kent—you know, keep out of trouble, come home early and so on. But, because of you, Kent, I realize what a charade this has been and will be. Her screaming and crying and me pretending to care. She won’t kill herself and I won’t actually give a shit, whatever she does. Whatever you do. As far as I’m concerned, you and your mother can both get bent.

Yours Truly,
Ford Battise

* * *

From: fbattise@actribe.org
To: knewton@cchs.org
CC:
Subject: my mother is a fall-out victim

Dear Kent:

Guess what my mother did yesterday? You’ll never guess in a million years. Seriously. She took hold of a bunch of her hair and cut it off with the poultry shears. A big gob of it. She’s got this enormous bald spot now. Front and center, too, like someone zapped her bangs with a dog razor. She wasn’t messing around, Kent. She really went for it. That was a new one. I mean, it was really almost inspired.

The poultry shears are bad medicine at our house, Kent, since they are intimately connected with the gory dismemberments of numerous chickens. But you should have seen Mom when she did it. She was standing behind the kitchen counter. I was on the other side of the bar, sitting on one of the barstools, swinging myself back and forth. And there she was, Kent, yelling at me. Something related to the refrigerator door and my not making my bed and ultimately to the fact that I didn’t love her and no woman could ever love me because I didn’t love back and was ungrateful and didn’t appreciate the sacrifice she’d made staying married to my father all these years. You know? Then she gathered up this big knot of her hair and held it between the blades of the poultry sheers. It was kind of a non-sequitur when she did it. I mean, she never explained the relationship between my responsibility for her misery and the immediate need to butcher her hair. But I got it. I mean, I more or less understood it wasn’t a rational act. It was intended as a metaphor for her frustration.

So there’s the microwave whirring in the background, Kent. I could see two lumpy baked potatoes slowly spinning on the tray in synchronous orbit. Then Mom held up the shears to her bangs and asked me if I wanted her to cut it off. She might as well, she said. She was practically a nun anyway. So how would I like that?

I didn’t say anything back, Kent. What do you do there? A part of me just wanted to say, “Yeah, go ahead. Knock yourself out you crazy bitch.” But I didn’t. Not even. I just kept quiet and stared at her and waited to see what would happen. And, when I didn’t say anything, she took those shears and went clip clip and this big hunk of her hair comes out in her hands and she glares at me and throws it in the sink.

I gotta say, Kent. It was pretty effective. I mean, being known as the grandson of the chief who killed himself was one thing for me. That’s plenty. That’s enough. But being known as the son of the craziest lady on the whole reservation . . . well, I’m honestly not sure if I can handle that. The mixture of pity and schadenfreude. You know? Being looked down on by everyone, even the losers.

So you see, Kent? Not only have you taught me that my mother will never kill herself, you actually helped her learn a new trick. If she wants me to do what she says, she has to threaten to cut off all her hair and walk around the reservation looking like a fall-out victim. Letting everyone know this is the house of the mentally unstable. Here is the place where someone’s problems are actually demonstrably worse than everybody else’s. And she might be crazy enough to keep it up, Kent. She might. I don’t know. I guess I’ll just have to ride the lightning for awhile. But how can she top this? I mean, she’s set the bar so high I think she maybe hasn’t left herself enough room to work with.

Sincerely,
Ford Battise

* * *

From: Fordb@actribe.org
To: knewton@cchs.org
CC:
Subject: last day of D-hall

Dear Kent:

Last day of D-hall, mofo. Four solid weeks of reading about White Fang and Old Yeller and getting my homework done on time. Got an A on my Physics exam, too. An isobaric process is a thermodynamic process in which pressure stays constant. Quantum entanglement is a property of the quantum mechanical state of a system containing two or more objects, where the objects that make up the system are linked in such a way. . . . But now it’s Friday, Kent. Fri-day. Kids are already out smoking pot in the school parking lot. Some of them are headed down to Galveston, or at least that’s what they say. Who really knows? And I’ve got plans too, Kent. The weekend’s all laid out before me. Becky and Chris and I are all driving into Livingston together. We’re gonna get some pizza and go to a keg party in the woods. Everything’s actually fairly golden, Kent. Crisp and golden. I feel like I just pulled out a baby tooth or popped a zit or something. You know the feeling I’m talking about, Kent? Release?

So, my mom came to school today. She had to, per the aforementioned rule concerning lengthy detentions. “At least one of the student’s parents must have an in-person meeting with the principal or vice-principal at the completion of the detention period. Otherwise the student cannot be reinstated to the classroom.” Or something like that.

So we’re in Principal Davidson’s office—all three of us. You know, a principal’s office? Probably just like yours. Fake plants and shit. Diplomas and family pictures and weird meaningless awards. And Davidson’s sitting there in the middle of all this at his cheap-ass desk with his fraternity beer stein full of pens and his pencil sharpener bolted to the corner of his desktop. It’s fucking ridiculous.

When we come in, he stands up and welcomes us. He spreads his arms. He bobs a little bit. It kind of reminds me of a jack-in-the-box. Then he sits us down and looks at us in what I guess is supposed to be some sort of meaningful, paternal, sympathetic sort of way. He’s a nice enough guy, really. Coke bottle glasses. Sansabelt slacks. Too short of a tie. Get it? And he rolls into this pre-programmed speech about all my aptitude. I’ve got shitpiles of it. It’s virtually coming out my ass. I’m good at this. I’m good at that. My Physics teacher thinks I’m gifted. I could get straight As if I wanted to. I did that thing in the poetry contest. And so on.

But he barely gets past the prologue before Mom’s bent over sobbing in her hands. Real, grief-stricken sobs too, Kent. Heaving sobs, once she gets going. She’s letting it all hang out. They could probably hear it in the Teacher’s Lounge. That’s how loud it was.

And Davidson stops, literally mid-sentence. He clasps his hands together, a mixture between wringing and praying. He looks like he’s just going to try to wait it out. And so Davidson and I are just kind of sitting there, staring at one another. He’s kind of like, “What the fuck?” and I’m kind of like, “What the fuck did you expect?”

When Mom looks up at us, her face is all covered in tears and mascara. She’s got that strained, trying-not-to cry look. You know what I mean? With the ripples and the trembles in her face? She sniffles for a minute and then she lets loose again. Shrieking and crying and saying how sorry she was. Sorry I was so much trouble for the principal. Sorry for messing up the school. Sorry for that other boy’s mother. And she starts explaining to Davidson all about how my father lost his job and how she used to have this thing where she stood in line and bought concert tickets, but that’s out now with the economy. She’s totally unglued, Kent. She says she can’t control me anymore and she doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know what to do! Should she send me off somewhere or something? That’s what she wants to know. Do they have a program?

And while this is going on, I’m still looking at Principal Davidson and Principal Davidson is still looking back at me and we have this thing. There, in the middle of his wall maps and plastic trophies and my screaming, freaked-out mother with the butthole in the middle of her forehead. Davidson just gives me this slow, brown-eyed look. It’s like he’s saying, “I remember exactly where you’re at, kid. Exactly.” It almost feels like I can read his mind about it.

And suddenly, I get it. The tie. The paunch. The duck waddle. The hush puppies. I just get it all about him, Kent. Through and through. He’s mailing it in. He’s always just been mailing it in. So then he looks up at my mother, who’s waiving her arms around and screaming, and, totally pitilessly, he says, “Why don’t you just settle down, Mrs. Battise? It’s a few weeks in D-Hall. It’s really not that big a deal.”

You should have seen my mom’s face, Kent. She looked like she was choking on a watermelon. I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head. Davidson waits for her to sit down. And eventually she does sit down. Davidson kind of shakes his head back and forth and says, “Look, what’s done is done, Mrs. Battise. Something like this happens every year. I don’t know why we keep the pen pal program on the curriculum, anyway.” He turns to me. “Ford, listen up: Why don’t you just give us all a break for a month or two and we’ll see if we can’t manage to struggle through one more year together? Right? You don’t want to be back in here, do you?”

No. I honestly didn’t.

Which brings me to my point, Kent. My keen Indian senses are telling me you quit narking on me. No more reprimands from the principal. No more pink letters from Mrs. Newton. So the question is, why did you stop telling on me, Kent? I wonder. I wonder a lot. Perhaps it was mercy. Maybe so. You know, you might have looked at all this shit and thought, “Well maybe it was an assholeish thing to do. To tease this poor Indian fuckwad about his stupid name.” And so you just let these last few emails slide. On the other hand, maybe you just blocked my address from your email account and never read another word from me again. Could be one. Could be the other. And it’s nice, Kent. I like that. The uncertainty of it. I might be telling you a story or I might be just talking to the blackness. You might be there or you might not.

Sincerely,
Ford Battise


Anthony Spaeth is a lawyer in Houston, Texas. His work has recently been published in (or accepted by) Jelly Bucket, Red Fez, Spork Press, Thieves Jargon, and The View from Here.


Read Anthony Spaeth’s comments on Dan Winnipeg’s “Sugar Bowl.”

______________
Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
This is really a remarkable piece, to me. That so complete a story can be told outside of a traditional narrative framework is fantastic, and that it can be done with such brevity is even more impressive. I’ve long been a fan of the epistolary format, and it’s executed extremely well here. There’s a dark humor spread throughout the piece, but also some very real emotion and familiar situations that raise questions in me as a reader about my own history, my own perceptions. And despite the fact that it’s all done without any real scene work, we still come away with a very complete sense of the characters—from Ford and his mother, to Principal Davidson and Kent. All in all, a very impressive achievement and a very engrossing story.

______________
Comments on this story by Tom Graham, author of “Seven Miles Deep”
I loved the consistent surprises in this piece. The epistolary format can often seem tired or a narrative strategy unsuited to the story it’s trying to tell. Here, I read the first couple of paragraphs and was instantly amused, but thought I had gotten the story’s entire trick. Reading on, however, it got dark to the point in which I was uncomfortable, but brought it back before we went over the edge. The scene in the principal’s office hits the mark of an epiphany, but the epiphany really seems to be a moment of empathy, where this sardonic narrator is able to get outside himself, and realize Principal Davidson doesn’t want to be there any more than he does. While humor can sometimes be over the top, this story still feels real, which is tough to balance. Thoroughly readable and very funny.




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