We are buying groceries in bustling mid-winter Phoenix following Ann’s doctor’s appointment. This was a follow-up appointment, and things are progressing as the doctor expected. We didn’t know what to expect, so his expectations have become our own. Ann will wear the eye patch for another week. The snowbirds are back, the streets and aisles made dangerous by their comic inattention, their not so secret hopes for death, for taking others with them. That’s one of Ann’s big theories, that so many people “act like they’d rather be dead.” She makes a distinction between “acting” like one wants to be dead, and actually wanting to be dead. She means “acting” as in taking action and as in performing. And she also separates all this from wanting “to die.” She says, “No one wants to die but plenty of people act like they want to be dead.” I don’t know what I think about this. I’ve heard it all many times. Movies with Ann are fun, clearly.
My wife is pushing our cart slowly, her left eye behind a black patch. A middle aged blonde woman in a light sweater and black eye patch gets stares. Bent over in front of two types of coconut sugar an old woman is saying, “Nogales, Nogales, Nogales,” and her husband completes the quavering thought standing behind her as he blocks all passage, “Mexico. Where we were is not a place we can any longer be. New Mexico. Grab three sugar bags. New sugar bags.”
Everywhere in this city old people are speaking aloud terrifying half-omens and falsehoods. Often these very people are carrying guns. The term is “open carry,” which my wife cites as proof of her pet theory. She said the quickness of the gun is related to wanting to be dead, but not wanting to die, this desire. This is evidence I believe in, even if the conclusion strikes me as somewhat morbid. I can tell you old people speaking aloud to shelved sugar does not get stares. Just the opposite.
No one in the store has asked about my wife’s patch yet, “What happened?” or “Didn’t have that last time you were in, did you?” But the threat that someone might ask has her anxious, so we walk slowly meting out our steps just so, as if we keep moving no one will be able to successfully speak to us.
Ann’s embarrassed by the procedure she’s had, embarrassed because of what her condition is commonly referred to, “surfer’s eye.” She’s a woman from the Bronx, a private woman, a woman who reluctantly married me, reluctantly lives in the west, but in most other situations acts with certainty and absolute belief. She’s not often sick or hobbled, and for this reason, I feel the patch is particularly fucking with her. That, and the fact that when she called her sister in Connecticut to explain the procedure her sister already knew all about the condition, and interrupted Ann to say, “Yes, the surfer thing. Will you have to cancel the trip?”
In the grocery store my wife says, “I hate that we came in here. Can we–”
I tell her, “Of course,” and we leave the cart where it is behind the sugar man, an act I hate to witness from others, the abandonment of carts, but an act I make to show my wife she is more important than me not being understood as an asshole to the immediate public. She leads the way out of the store and its familiar songs, lighting, attitudes, and stands at the edge of the parking lot as if the ocean is in front of her, waves crashing. She turns to me, and when I see the look on her face, I jog to catch up.
The trip her sister referred to is for our niece’s high school graduation. We are told the party will be muted because college is not on the horizon, or a job, but instead a move-in with a boyfriend in the city, a musician. The couple has expressed long-term plans to land in California. The family is mostly aghast because he has a tattoo on his face. A small arrow, point down, next to his right eye. No one has asked him the significance, which shocked me, because it was the first thing I wanted to know when my wife relayed all this pre-trip information to me. Vital family gossip. Instead of having an answer to my question, she told me what she was told following the tattoo reveal, “He’s a Native American. But Laura doesn’t know whether to call him Native American or indigenous.”
“Why would she call him indigenous?” I ask. We are home, slowly drinking wine. We are across the living room from one another, my wife watching TV with the closed captioning on from the couch and I’m lying on the floor. She mutes the TV when she thinks she can hear the neighbors beginning to yell at each other, but it has been quiet for a while now and she’s left the sound off.
“Columbus Day has her all fucked up. Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you know?”
“Oh, right. If we are just talking about words, I like the sound of American Indian,” I say.
“We aren’t just talking about words,” Ann says, “The whole point is we aren’t talking about words, we are talking about a man, the boyfriend.”
“Well why would she have to say any of these words in front of him?”
“She doesn’t. She just wants to get it right.”
“She wants to get it right in her head. She wants to get right, in her head.”
I tell my wife it sounds like maybe her sister should move in with face tattoo, so she’d have time to figure out what to call him. This does not go over so well. But I do think my stance/ignorance/indifference has helped unite Ann with Laura, at least in Ann’s thinking, and this will benefit me once we actually get out to clean, wooded Connecticut.
From across the room, the tattoo is not noticeable, and seeing this young man in a cable-knit sweater and khakis, the word “indigenous” feels of the wrong language. I think, isn’t that a plant word? Coniferous? His black hair is short and parted, and it’s clear that he had parents who paid for braces. The town we are in is called Hamden. I like being sent out on errands, there have been two such occasions this afternoon since we got back from the ceremony, and I have decided to not start drinking until later in the day so I can continue these runs. Both trips have been to the grocery store, and each time I have had the overwhelming desire to stop a man a generation older than myself, in front of the rye bread, and tell him where I live armed men can walk in and purchase a quart of skim milk without any trouble. That a woman with a gun and two children holster high can buy paper towels and is given free reign. And yet an old woman with a blind Westie shaking in her cart is asked to leave. Someone might be allergic. I have wanted to tell these men, grayer than me, about this place, Arizona, but I can’t imagine they’d believe me in the way I’d want them to, for them to understand this is not just common or notable but the constant reality. It’s not TV news, it’s real life. And they’d maybe ask, well, why do you live there? And I’d have no answer. Maybe Canada would come up if we talked long enough, or Norway or Japan. Other essentially gunless places. Maybe if we found a bar I’d tell them, uncertain if it was true, that maybe I live where I do because I’d rather be dead. But this wouldn’t be true. The worst it gets for me is the incomplete sentence, “Reasons to not kill myself,” getting stuck in my head. But the reasons never come. There is no need to generate any argument to live, because I don’t get beyond having the line “Reasons to not kill myself,” repeating in my thoughts. In this hypothetical bar, I’d be glad Ann wasn’t with me to join in their questioning.
I return to the bright house with the champagne and as I come in the door I am face to face with face tattoo, who I have not formally been introduced to yet. The house is crowded with family, all my wife’s sisters, and the ghostly living grandparents, rabbit-like grandchildren, the house is loud, and so it’s normal we haven’t shaken hands yet. He tells me his name is Chris, and repeats my name back to me after I say it, and I can’t help myself, I say, “Indigenous is what the sisters were speculating might be the right word for you.”
“That sounds like a very Connecticut conclusion,” he says.
“Not necessarily bad–”
“Yeah, not necessarily anything,” Chris says.
I resist asking him where he is from, but I feel now that he is from Connecticut. Later I want to Google what percentage of the Connecticut population is Native American. I ask, “What type of music do you play?”
He says, “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
I’m confused. I say, “I thought you were a musician?”
He says, “I had a band for while. But, I’m a student. I’m in graduate school for Dream Studies.”
Initially when he said “student” I was going to tell him that the reason everyone is calling him a musician is because then the “musician with a tattoo on his face” formulation could be used. Not that this is a widely accepted cliché, but it does seem to broadcast a certain type of joblessness and doom. But now that he’s said “Dream Studies” in a way that lets me know both those words are to be capitalized, it seems the most damning relevant caricature was not painted.
“What school?” I ask, striving to project innocence, earnestness, eager for the answer.
“Saybrook University. I’m in their online Dream Studies graduate certificate program, year two.”
“Year two of two.”
I remember working with a woman who one day went around to everyone in the office, and when she got someone alone near the fax machine or the coffee, explained calmly that the world was flat. It was incredible to experience. In my case, she said she “had news” for me and then, rarely blinking, told me her story. At first, I thought I was the only one who she was revealing her findings to, but, over time we all found each other and amazedly understood she’d been telling everyone we worked with that the world was flat. This was around 2005 or 2006. She said that NASA had faked all of their photos of our planet, depicted Earth as falsely round, as had other countries, and that we were all being duped. I had nodded throughout her explanation and maybe said, “Interesting,” and others had done some version of the same, but one man I worked with, an older guy, had said, “Why do other planets look round when I look in my telescope?” She couldn’t answer that, but said she’d find out. This was early in my marriage, when we were new to Arizona, and no doubt colored my feelings about the state. Anyway this is what I’m thinking about as Chris is telling me he about his Dream Studies program. I feel like he is about to say something that will separate himself from me entirely, or at least even further than the fact that he is in a Dream Studies program.
I tell him I am skeptical of such a program, not that the area of study is not worthy, it is, but that it seems like the kind of scam program that would proliferate in California.
Chris says, “That’s fair. But maybe I want to be a person that participates in scam culture. Maybe I want to set up shop in one of these beach towns with bored rich folks willing to pay to have their dreams deconstructed and offered back up as motivation.” I don’t tell him this but I believe having a tattoo on his face and not being white will help him in this venture.
I take a small step back from Chris without realizing I am doing so, but when he looks at my feet and then in to my eyes, I recognize my retreat. I underestimated him. He’s much smarter than I am, more cunning, will more easily make money, and will probably be less stressed while doing so. He will not need a corporation to work for. I am impressed, but don’t want to admit it. I continue listening to him describing his potential storefront, and the terminology that will follow his name on the door: Christopher Fallswell, Certified Dream Counselor.
My wife’s dad, over ninety, frail and sharp, with a daily crossword and walking and phone call routine, finds Chris and I in the foyer. He says, “What type of music is it you play!”
Chris says, “Klezmer music. And mid-period Neil Young and standards. We’re open.”
The old man takes his hand off Chris’s shoulder and says, “Okay,” and walks away with the champagne I handed to him to take into the kitchen. Chris and I follow the grandpa at a distance because we both want a drink but also don’t want to upset him or speak with him any more than we have to. Chris sees Ann in her eye patch and watches her walk over and grab my arm. He says, “Do you both surf?”
.31% of the population of Connecticut was identified as “American Indian and Alaska Native alone” as of the 2010 Census. A little over ten thousand people. Or is it that a little over ten thousand people self-identified themselves in this way? No matter. I could not find statistics on dream counselors, or even a useful definition of what a “dream counselor” is. If the career is one of Chris’s invention, I’m glad.
I took a picture that night in Connecticut of Ann and Chris with their arms around each other, smiling wide. Her patch against his tattoo. It’s on my desk now. I’m looking at it. It’s evidence of something. Maybe not evidence that can stand against a holstered gun in a grocery store. I don’t think that is a relationship that exists in the world: photographs of people > violence. If the link exists and is being won by photographs, the victory is glacial in its reveal and we’ll all be shot dead before we can celebrate. But I don’t think that speed proves anything either. Our niece broke up with Chris before moving anywhere with him. She is living at home. Tonight Ann and I will make popcorn and watch cartoons, something bright and moral, the strongest false indicator available that deep down we both know we’ll live forever. And if we’re lucky later on, Ann will straighten, mute the TV, and we’ll listen as the neighbors scream their awful grievances at each other, as our safe chewing slows.