He introduced himself to Robert as Jason Sweetwater, a man who wanted for nothing. He had the sun, enough water, the sweet air, and good loving at home whenever he wanted it. He liked Robert’s laugh. He couldn’t find a thing to dislike. With whites he looked. He didn’t defend it. For one thing Robert seemed to like him. Not that fondling act: look a real Indian. Robert walked right up to Jason as he might his own father. Jason remembered taking a step back, he thought the guy was going to hug him. When he started throwing oats to that tiny pony of his, Jason asked him, Did you grow that thing in the trailer?
The horse’s name was Roan. She was a deep red with a fine neck, almost a horse. When Jason got him talking he couldn’t stop. The silence got unleashed, and the words got hard to stop. Roan was a challenge to feed. The trailer accommodated bookshelves so there wasn’t much room to carry bales of hay. Robert asked each farmer where to find the next source, usually 500 miles down the road. It worked out. He got fed too, because of the horse. Some rancher’s wife would insist he be invited to the family’s meal. If they had room, he usually stayed the night. The important thing for each family was that they got to borrow all the books they wanted, if they could replace the with others.
Robert kept a card file with the addresses and phone numbers of each book. Often a kid in New Mexico would be mailed a book from Montana or South Dakota. Robert’s goal was to have the kids’ curiosity immediately met with a response from the larger world. It pulled it together, the world, that is. Each new generation had the preeminence it deserved. The rest of humanity waited upon them to kick civilization one notch higher. Jason was sure his granddaughter, Jimmy, could do that.
Jimmy Sweetwater lifted her grandfather’s lunch out of the bicycle’s rear basket. She liked climbing up the side path to the mesa. The wind at the top blew on her wet neck. She shaded her eyes. Was the sun brighter as she got closer to it? She saw the thing, when the sun burst off it metal side. The sheep milled about the long trailer. Jimmy squatted down to see under its glare. Two pairs of feet: one in high-heeled, tooled leather, and the other in soft deer-hide. She crept around the side of the trailer forgetting the lunch, trying hard to hear the stranger’s rapid words. Her grandfather reached behind his back to pull her forward, tucking her head under his steadying arm.
The owner of the trailer talked on and on, with a lower, booming tone that her grandfather’s. She could feel her grandfather’s short answers vibrate through his side. She looked up the long shadow of the man, past his normal jeans and wool plaid shirt with too much yellow and not enough blue, to where his mustache moved up and down over the descending words. His eyes threw her back to his boots. He stopped talking and the boots moved toward her. He sat with a kind of crash in the dusty grass. Jimmy had to smile at his silliness. He hauled out a picture book. It has its own glossy cover with a shy girl in ugly shoes and a pretty red cloak. She ventured out from her grandfather’s protection and sat down next to him to accept the book into her spreading skirts. The quiet made her nervous now.
I forgot your lunch, she said and started to get up.
Sit, her grandfather said.
It’s back there, Jimmy said, pointing under the trailer’s glassy side.
It seemed bigger now that she was grounded with the pretty book in her lap. From this angle it looked like a road mirage casting back all the colors of the opposite terrain. She thought she saw her home mirrored clearly from the left. She could see her grandmother taking bed sheets from the line out back. Jimmy shook her head. Grandmother’s line of wash was behind the trailer. This was some other laundress folding linens.
It’s big, she said.
He nodded without looking at her. That was nice. She could breathe easier now. She liked his looks. She touched his arm to show him she was finished with her appraisal of him. How far do you have to go? she asked, eyes lowered again.
Oh, I’m here now, he said. I’ll stay until you find all the books you’ll need until I get back.
Jimmy didn’t believe that one. She ran her fingers over the book’s shiny cover; the sun was warming the paper. Her grandfather sat on his camp stool and unpacked their lunch. He divided it up three ways. The man got up to get cokes from an ice chest inside the cab of the trailer. They ate almost in silence, smiling and nodding at each other over the cold mutton and onions, the sweet cornbread and honey and the icy cokes.
Is he staying, Grandfather? Jimmy asked.
Not for as long as you would like, her grandfather said.
I’ll stay, Robert said, until you tell me I can go.
No, no! her grandfather laughed. You’d be here after I’m dead. Tell her about the waiting children. Jimmy’s heart can stretch.
Come look inside, the bookman said, instead.
Jimmy placed the borrowed book carefully in her knapsack and followed him to a door in the rear of the trailer. The first thing she heard was the horse’s greeting. Robert extended his hand down to her so she could come all the way up the metal steps. Jimmy could smell the horse now, the warm animal fur smell. As her eyes adjusted from the glare outside, she breathed a long, Wow. The sides of the trailer were shelved with books. It was as long as the aisle to the altar in church. Well maybe half as long. It was long enough. She could feel her grandfather’s shadow growing behind her.
He collects these from people who read, he said in the tone of awe used for windstorms or rainbows.
Jimmy ran her fingertips over the long rows. The horse whinnied again and the man whistled to it. At the far end of the trailer a velvet red rope hung on brass hooks. Down a step beyond waist-high think plastic doors was the red mare. Robert reached above the horse’s head and dropped a half-hatch window so the horse, Roan, could lean out.
She has me well-trained, don’t you think? he said. Jimmy reached over and stroked the long cool neck.
Can I ride her for you?
Grandfather? he asked.
Roan will be safe, her grandfather said.
Robert pointed to the small English saddle and after he adjusted the stirrups higher and handed her the reins, he went outside to let down the ramp. Jimmy turned to look at the books she hadn’t chosen. It’s all right, he said. We’ll wait for you.
Jimmy Sweetwater gave Roan her head and noticed the sun was setting pink on the metal, horse-book trailer as they raced low and away.
Now Jimmy’s mother, Joey, had been crazy since she was nineteen. The tribe paid her care in a city hospital. Jimmy asked her grandmother when she turned fourteen if she would go crazy too.
Not you, her grandmother said. That was alcohol and losing Gordon’s brother.
When did Gordon lose a brother?
Not your cousin, Gordon. Your uncle was drafted and had to go to war in that place, Viet Nam. Your mother and he were close.
Did my father know my Gordon’s father? Jimmy was getting confused.
Yes, Grandmother said in the short way that means you cannot ask anymore on that subject. Jimmy began to upbraid her hair. It soother her grandmother to brush it and sometimes she would talk history, rambling while the brush moved on and on. Not now, she frowned. Go take your grandfather his lunch and tell him to sleep home tonight, my bones say rain.
That’s why Jimmy’s choice of books seemed odd to Robert; they were on depression, alcoholism, Viet Nam, teenage sex, child molestation, and a tribal history book published by the Window Rock Council Headquarters. For exchange Jimmy had given the traveling library a beat up Farmer’s Almanac, a Sears catalog from 1968, a Bible concordance, a sheep husbandry book, and reluctantly a two-volume set of the Bronte sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Jimmy visited her mother after she had read all the books. She brought with her three strings of Christmas lights, a clay painted dove, self-addressed stamped envelopes with pretty flowered stationery, a blue ribboned long terry bathrobe, and a pair of satin, size-seven, high-heeled blue slippers. Jimmy had sold her first ewe and could only think of her mother as lonely, not crazy. She had also brought along the tribal history book, hoping her mother might help her understand what had happened.
The nuns shook their heads at the presents, but Jimmy kept her chin up, afraid to give in too early to her qualms. Her mother’s door was locked, but pleasant enough inside. Her mother was in bed, eyes open but not answering hello. Jimmy placed all the blue wrapped packages on the end of the bed, and talked quietly about the family as she tacked up the Christmas lights around the window and the locked door. When she finished she cranked up her mother’s bed, still chatting about the mesa, and put the packages now on the bed table and swung it in front of her mother’s frown. Surprisingly, her mother began to unwrap the packages, setting their contents carefully on the table, without comments. She did hold onto the blue slippers quite a while and Jimmy felt that was thanks enough. Jimmy started folding the torn paper and stuck the still usable bows on her mother’s lampshade. Her mother was paging through the tribal book, and pointed at a picture of a soldier near the end.
Morris, she said. And then louder, plaintively, Morris!
Jimmy’s questions didn’t help, closing the book didn’t help, giving her the blue slippers didn’t help, pounding on the door didn’t help, letting her mother pull her long hair didn’t help. The screaming, the louder wails, the name, on and on, Morris, never stopped. Jimmy could hear her even outside waiting for the bus. Morris, all unanswered, the Christmas lights still blinking in her high locked window.
Jimmy hadn’t finished crying when she got home and her grandmother determined to give those nuns a piece of her mind. Letting a kid face that hailstorm. She threw pans around the kitchen until her anger cooled enough to brush out Jimmy’s braids.
The nuns knew her grandmother. They kind of scooted off like prairie chickens, feathers fluffed, scared but acting angry. Her grandmother stood her ground until Mother Superior appeared, grim but friendly. Grandmother allowed that Jimmy should be escorted next time she visited. Mother Superior agreed, even apologized, fed them iced pink cakes with roses on each one, and asked politely when sweet Jimmy would like to visit again. Her grandmother was busy with her own thoughts, so Jimmy began a litany of questions.
Who was Morris? Why couldn’t her mother see him? Was Morris her father? Was he dead? Who was the man in the picture?
Mother Superior looked nervously at her grandmother who seemed to be nodding off. She will tell you eventually. You have a little brother. Years ago it seemed like a good idea to adopt children away to good homes. We thought, wrongly, that you all might be happier if we fit you into the bigger community.
Jimmy was excited, a brother – Morris. My dad?
Viet Nam killed him and his best friend Gordon. Your mother loved them both. She was so distraught, nearly as she is now, we didn’t think she could care for the child. Your grandmother had you in hand, you were about three or four, but a baby seemed a lot of work. I think now we were wrong. Maybe, God gave that healthy baby to your mother to make up for the war. I think we can help you find him. Maybe his adoption mother will understand that you want to visit. If she’s a good woman, she’ll let him visit here too. I’ll write to her. Will that be okay?
Mother should know he’s coming back.
Now, Jimmy that is not what I said.
Jimmy smiled as big as she could in thanks. I know. Could I go see her now?
I’ll go with you. We’ll just leave Grandmother nap here for a minute.
His dreams were old. Old, Morris thought for an eight year old kid. He dreamt of course of the flying sandy soil, bleach baked, with scrambles of parched grass. The sturdy weeds sang to him. He could hear sheep calling to each other. Television couldn’t drum up the heat in the dream; he could even feel the blowing grit on his bare arms, taste the dry air. He never dreamt the dream of long black hair anymore; but sometimes waking from the earth dream, he could remember it. Sometimes when they called his name at school, too angry or loud, he thought he heard another voice of anguish calling, Morris, Morris. It, the calling, left him empty and confused. The dreams comforted him.
His mother was a single schoolteacher. Before he went to first grade, she told him he was adopted, so he could explain to the kids why his father didn’t live with them. Before she told him, he had believed in a god. But he didn’t find much business for a god to do if he couldn’t even take care of the children he created. Oh, she told him he was special, that she had picked him out of a large group. It wasn’t just happenstance; she had chosen particularly him. Morris couldn’t say he didn’t love his mother. He always approached her hoping for the best… like when you have a loose tooth and you hope that maybe it rooted back into the gum. But he was generally disappointed. It did work out better if other people were around, but they went home. The beatings usually took place after his bath before he could get into his pajamas. He thought it best not completely to give up on God, either, because maybe he just hadn’t noticed yet. The teacher did ask him once about the marks on his back. He said he had fallen and that Mom had taken him to emergency; but he was glad the teacher’s face stayed concerned. It embarrassed him, but he noticed.
Afterwards, Mom brought home on friend over he liked. She talked kind of straight, not about the weather or stupid remarks about growing. She would stop talking to Mom and notice him. Mom seemed to like her too. Sometimes they even talked about the beatings. Mom gave the lady, a social worker, the belt. Mom stopped coming in when he took his bath at night. But when she was drinking she would wake him up. She would sit on him, her knees on each side of his terrified stomach, and yell in his ear about men hurting women she loved. But she quit the hitting. Morris didn’t know why his stomach still hurt when she left. The pains got worse when the beatings stopped. It was as if it might rain, but didn’t. The mesa dreams came almost every night before the bookman knocked on the McCready door to take him home to Jimmy.