Fish Wars

from The Beadworkers
Beth Piatote

My parents are fighting again. I pull the covers over my ears to try to muffle the sound, but my mother’s whisper cuts through every layer and my father’s voice seeps like water into a boat. They’ve been doing this lately. Fighting. But I can never quite hear what they are fighting about. I roll over and look at Jolene but she’s sleeping like a log. Or she’s faking it. Either way, it’s easy for her to shut it out, since they aren’t really her parents. I wonder if they will get a divorce.
I start to imagine them setting us down at the kitchen table and giving us the news. My little sister would bawl and say she wants to stay with our mom. And Lionel would say he’s big enough to just move out on his own. Move in with his friends, ’cause he’ll be eighteen in June anyway. Jolene would say she’s going back to Alaska to find her dad. Mom would be sitting there, calm as a tree, but Dad would be cracking some joke and trying to make everyone laugh, and it would be killing me to think of my dad living all by himself. But what kind of girl doesn’t pick her mom? And it would all come down to me: Do I stay with Mom or pick Dad?
Right in the middle of this I realize that something has happened. They stopped. I hold my breath. Then pow! I hear this loud thump and I think one of them has slammed something into the table. A fist, a coffee mug, a bowling ball. Okay, maybe not a bowling ball, because that would probably be really loud. And nobody here bowls. So okay, that was stupid. No bowling ball. But something, something hit the table. And right after that I hear the door crank open and the sound of my dad’s boots crushing gravel. Next sound (predictably): pickup-truck door. Then the Ford squeals because Dad twisted the key too hard in the ignition. Way to make an exit, Dad! The wheels scatter rock as he pulls out of the yard.
I wonder where he is going. Worse, I wonder what it will be like when he comes back.
Two weeks ago, I was at a slumber party at my friend Nicole’s house. Nicole’s family lives in town, not on the Rez, although there are plenty of white families like hers who live here. There were seven of us there, which turned out not to be such a lucky number. At first it was really fun, because Nicole’s big sister Karen was watching us. She made us three Totino’s pizzas and let us drink all the pop we wanted. I love Fresca, so I had some of that, and then Jolene and I split an Orange Crush. Karen was drinking Tab. She’s the drill mistress at the high school, which means she (a) is in charge of the drill team, and (b) did not make cheerleader. She’s still popular, though, even without being a cheerleader. And she was really nice to us, and showed us how to do a French manicure. Turns out it’s easier than it looks.
After dinner we go downstairs to the rec room. We tell Karen we’re going to listen to music and make crank calls. She seems cool with that. Lisa, a girl in my class, says she brought a surprise for us, and I think it’s going to be candy bars or makeup. She gets her pillow, where she has stuffed her pajamas and toothbrush, and pulls out a record album: Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow... Right! I was not expecting that. More surprising is that when she opens it, there are two records in the sleeve: Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. I wonder if this is something white families do to store their albums. She looks kind of embarrassed and says her parents won’t let her listen to that one. Nicole grabs it and puts it on. We listened to Dick Gregory, and at first we are all excited because we think there will be some dirty jokes. But there aren’t any, just a lot of jokes about “Big Daddy” in Washington and the war and Cuba and how people in Minnesota have funny laws, like not allowing oleo. He said a lot of things I thought were pretty interesting. After it’s over, Nicole says she wants the Cosby album, but everyone else (I guess me included) wants the radio. We turn the radio on and right away the Beach Boys come on, and everyone’s pretty happy after that.
But then all this crazy stuff starts going down. We decide to do each other’s hair, and we’re listening to the radio, you know, it’s all cool. “Louie
Louie” comes on and Becky jumps up on the bed and starts singing and dancing. And right when she’s singing, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah,” and I mean right at that minute, with her mouth wide open, we hear someone pounding on the door upstairs. Then someone’s loud feet stomp overhead, and we realize that there’s a man up there, an unhappy man.
Two women are shouting at each other, and Nicole and Becky look at each other. The man is growling, too, and all these indistinct sounds blend together.
And then things go totally sideways.
Karen comes flying down the stairs and tells us it’s okay, which is clearly a lie because we can hear Becky’s mom screaming at Nicole’s mom about stealing her man, Bruce. It’s Bruce up there stomping around and yelling too. Karen puts her arms around Nicole, who is now having about the crappiest birthday party on record. And of course it’s bad for Becky, too, because that’s her dad up there with Nicole’s mom, and her mom getting all crazy, and it’s not even her birthday or her house and no one knows what to do. Becky gets up and goes to the bathroom and shuts the door. No one is talking now, we’re just sitting there, clutching our pillows and wishing we were asleep. Or just somewhere else. The radio is still on pretty loud, and “She Loves You” comes on, which I normally think is a happy song.
Anyhow, that is what happens at the birthday party. We all have to take sides, because after a while Becky’s mom leaves and it gets quiet upstairs, and Karen goes to her room too. At this point Nicole and Becky can’t even look at each other, and it seems like Becky is going to stay in the bathroom bawling all night. I try to help Becky feel better, and so does Jolene. So we end up never really getting any sleep.
In the morning Nicole’s mom comes out in a big pink bathrobe and acts like nothing happened. She gives us cereal and she’s real cheerful and nice. We don’t see Bruce, but I see his crusty old work socks in the hallway and I wonder if he’s there or if he snuck out early. I can’t wait for my mom to come and get me and Jolene, so I ask to borrow the phone and call her. I don’t usually think of our house as anything special, but I can’t wait to get home.
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems like ever since that slumber party my parents have been fighting. And I hear them and I just hope that my dad isn’t doing something like Becky’s dad. One thing I know, though. If some woman stole my dad, my mom would not make a scene. She’d just put his stuff outside. That’s what she always says: If a man don’t treat his family right, you put his stuff outside and he knows he can’t come back. That’s the old way. I start thinking about this, and then I’m worried that maybe Mom is putting his stuff out right now, so I pull back the covers and walk slo-mo toward the door. It seems like every time I put my foot down the floor creaks, and even my breath sounds loud. I try to control it all, breathe slow, go mountain-lion style to the door. I finally get there and turn the knob, and jeez, it sounds like a cow kicking a metal fence. My heart is beating fast and so dang loud, I can’t tell what sounds are outside of me and what are in. By this time I’m wishing I had just stayed in bed, but now I’m too far out, and I can’t catch a current to get back.
I sneak down the hallway and listen. Nothing. I stick my head around the arched entry to the living room, and I see her sitting there at the end of the sofa, reading a book. Cat’s Cradle. I think I’m being super quiet, but she looks up at me, looks me right in the face. She puts the book down and whispers: C’mere. She opens her arms as I land on the sofa, and she asks me if I’m sick or can’t sleep or what. I say I don’t know, I just can’t sleep. She tips me into her lap, and she strokes my hair and sings to me, the one she sang to me as a baby, with my name in the song:

Hush a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep little Trudy
When you awake, you will find
All the pretty little horses
Blacks and bays, dapples and grays
All the pretty little horses

I wake up in the morning on the couch with a green wool blanket over me. The house is quiet. Through the window, I can see my dad’s truck in the drive. As everyone starts getting up, Dad comes out to the kitchen to make breakfast. He’s whistling as he starts the coffee and pulls out a pan to cook eggs. Mom shuffles in, her eyes puffy. He pulls her to himself with a onearmed hug, and she rests her head for a second on his shoulder. I ask myself if this is normal. My eyes say yes, but my gut says no.
Things seem pretty quiet for the next few days. No late-night escapes for my dad, no puffeyes from my mom. Then at breakfast one morning Dad says to Lionel, “You’re not goin’ to school today. I need you here.” Lionel gets a huge smile on his face, and Jolene and I ask if we can stay home, too. Without looking at us, Dad says no and tells us to get our shoes on.
Since Lionel gets a hooky day, Mom walks us out to the bus stop at the end of our lane, which is about a quarter mile. The fog is thick and low on the ground, so we know the bus is going to be late. I ask Mom what kind of work Lionel is doing with Dad, and why we can’t stay home, too. She says they’re mending nets. And that we have to go to school. I think, Okay, so there’s no real reason why we have to go to school. Just that we do. I make a loud sigh. I’m not satisfied, but I’m not going to sass. Pretty soon we see the lights of the bus cut through the fog, and that big yellow tank pulls up to our stop. Jolene hops on like it’s the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Pierce County Fair, and my little sister, Janey, clings to Mom, also like it’s the Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair. I peel her away, feeling like I’m the only one around here who sees things as they are.
When we get home, we walk past a string of pickups parked along the lane. I recognize most of them. We get to the yard, and I see all the men hanging out in the shed. There’s Cecil and Uncle Billy and Frank and Dave. The door is propped open, and I can see them smoking and talking. Lionel is sitting there, too, listening. They are crowded around a space heater, wearing their work denims and flannellined jackets. Uncle Billy is talking. A big fish net is spread between them.
“What are they doing?” I ask.
Jolene shrugs. “Boring,” she says.
Just then we hear a car creeping up the lane, and there’s Grandm Wilma in her giant green Pontiac. She pulls up to the house and we run to her. Janey gets her hugs in first, probably because she’s littlest, and then Jolene, probably because she’s adopted. When I get my turn, I give Grandma Wilma the biggest hug I can. She is barely bigger than me now, just a twig of an old lady, but her arms are like steel bands. I bet she could cream Jack Lalanne in a push-up contest. Nothing personal against Jack Lalanne.
Grandma Wilma brings out her sewing basket and we go inside. Auntie Rose is already there, drinking coffee with Mom. She tells us to get our beadwork out, and pretty soon everyone is pulling out their work and making a space on the table. Mom pours coffee for Grandma Wilma, and I show her my new moccasin pattern. We’re just getting started and Grandma Twila shows up with apple spice cake, which is my favorite. I pretty much forget about anything that’s going on in the shed, now that the beading ladies are around. They are always telling jokes and making everyone laugh, so I decide to try out some new material on them.
“You know, there are some pretty funny laws out there,” I say.
“I don’t know how funny they are,” Grandma Wilma says, and we all laugh.
“Like in Minnesota,” I say. “Do you know that in Minnesota it’s illegal to buy oleo?”
They laugh again.
“Oleo!” I say, for effect. “You think they are selling it on the street? Psssst,” I say, pretending to open my pretend jacket. “You wanna buy some oleo?
They laugh again. “And you know the Supreme Court,” I say.
“Oh, I know those guys,” Grandma Twila says.
“Well, the Supremes say kids can’t pray in school,” I say. “So I want to know: How are we gonna pass our tests now?”
They just smile this time, and nod. So I try another tack.
“The teacher sees a bunch of boys in the back and says, ‘Hey, you looking at dirty magazines?’ And they say, ‘Oh no, we’re prayin’!’”
This gets more of a chuckle. I decide to try one more. “You know the South is bad for Negroes. But in North Dakota, all the white people are cool with them. You know why? ’Cause in North Dakota they got so many Indians around!”
They laugh again, but not the same way. I look at Mom and she’s not laughing. Or even smiling. “Where do you hear these things?” she asks. “At school?”
Jolene looks up at me. Then she looks at Mom and says, “On a record.”
I can’t believe that Jolene just blew this whole thing for me. I give her the stink eye.
Mom’s brow furrows. “What record?”
        “Uh, Dick Gregory,” I say. “He’s a comedian. Like Bill Cosby.”
Mom’s face brightens a little, but she doesn’t quite smile. “You’re part right,” she says, although I’m not sure what part she means.
Around dinnertime Jolene and I get sent to the kitchen to peel potatoes. Uncle Billy and Dave come in with Dad and Lionel, and Mom cooks a big hash of potatoes and smoked salmon for everyone. Mom and Dad seem pretty normal, and I’m thinking that they probably won’t get a divorce. Becky’s parents are definitely getting a divorce, and it looks like Becky and Nicole are going to be half-sisters or something like that soon, even though they can’t stand each other. We eat the cake and do the dishes, then bedtime comes and everyone is still there. Dad tells us to go to bed. I think it’s going to be hard to go to sleep, but instead I drift away like a cloud.
The next morning Grandma Wilma is in the kitchen. At first, I’m not sure what’s going on. I feel like maybe I’m not awake. Jolene is right behind me. She says, “Hi, Grandma,” like she’s there every day. I’m starting to think Jolene and Grandma Wilma are related. I wonder if Grandma Wilma has spent the night. She’s making flapjacks, wearing the exact same clothes she had on yesterday. She says good morning and sends Jolene back to the bedroom to make sure Janey is getting herself dressed. She tells me to set the table.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask, opening the cabinet.
“She’s taking care of some things,” she says from the griddle.
I look at the stack of plates.
“How many plates?” I ask.
She thinks for a minute. “Four.”
Four. That’s me, Jolene, Janey, and Lionel. Or me, Jolene, Janey, and Dad. Or me, Jolene, Janey, and Grandma Wilma. I leave the stack of plates on the counter and run to Lionel’s room. I don’t knock like I’m supposed to, I just push the door open and it’s still as the moon in there. His bed, with the blue star quilt, is still made. There’s not a wrinkle on it.
“Where’s Lionel?” I yell down the hall.
But Grandma Wilma is right there. She moves like a cat.
“Did Lionel go to the Army?” I ask.
“Trudy,” she says, and I feel the curve of her hand gently close on my bicep. She steers me toward the kitchen. “Lionel’s with your folks. They just asked me to get you girls to school this morning.” We walk down the hall in awkward silence. “Everything is going to be okay,” she says.
I stop and look Grandma Wilma in the face. “What do you mean, everything’s going to be okay?”       
I’m afraid she’ll think I’m giving her sass, but her expression doesn’t change. As she’s looking at me, I notice for the first time that her dark eyes are rimmed with gray, almost blue on the edges. Everything is okay, she says. I realize that Jolene and Janey are standing there watching this whole drama, and I decide to buck up.
I nod. I look over at my sisters. “Everything’s fine,” I say. Jolene shrugs. Janey nods earnestly and repeats, “It’s okay.”
“Good,” Grandma Wilma says. “Now set the table.”
Grandma Wilma makes the best flapjacks, but I have a feeling that any day that starts with half your family AWOL is not going to go right. At school, we get off the bus and Jolene and I are walking to the fifth-grade yard when I hear some boy yelling at me.
“Hey, Trudy,” he yells. “Trudy John!”
I follow the voice and it’s coming from a pack of sixth-grade boys. Is it a pack? I’m not sure that’s the right word. There are three of them, maybe not enough for what you normally might consider a pack. But it’s really the way they move. They move like a pack, and they are drifting toward me and Jolene. I wonder why they’re breaking Rule No. 1 of the Unspoken Code of the Playground: sixth graders never talk to fifth graders. I’m surprised they even know my name.
“Hey, Tru-dee,” comes from the mouth of the skinny buzzcut boy in the middle, Dale Davis. He’s wearing Wrangler jeans and a dingy white Tshirt, no jacket, even though it’s only fifty degrees out and a cold wind is skidding off the bay.
“What,” I say.
“Saw your dad today.”
A crow flaps over to a tree beside us and caws from her branch: A-ah, a-ah.
“Yep,” Dale says, rocking back slightly on his heels, his hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans. “Saw your mom too. Down at the PD.”
For a second I feel scared. For a second I think he might know something, because his dad is a state bull.
“Liar,” Jolene says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Liar.”
His skinny face contracts. He tips his head, squints up in the tree at the crow. A-ah, a-ah. “Nope,” Dale says. “Pretty dang sure that was your mom bailing your dad’s ass out of jail this morning. I figure he was drunk.”
“Shut up,” I say.
Dale lunges forward, then staggers to the side. He stops, and mimes drinking like he’s got a bottle in his hand. “Look at me,” he says, and staggers around some more. “I’m a drunk Indian! Get me some firewater!” His friends laugh. He stumbles around like a lame man walking through sand.
SHUT UP, I yell.
Dale straightens. “Not my fault your dad’s a drunk,” he says.
And that’s when I snap, going at him like a whale butting a boat. I go straight for his belly, throw myself into him, and knock him to the ground. That asphalt comes to meet me fast, and I feel the impact of falling down with him. Breath gets knocked out of us both. I scramble to stay on top of him. I feel the tense muscle of his open hand crash into my nose and a pain so sharp I don’t know whether to cry or throw up. My eyes are closed and I’m throwing my hands at his face, not even sure if I’m making a fist. I hear someone yelling fight fight and a-ah, a-ah and then he tips me off of him and I land on my back while he jumps up.
This is how Mrs. Bartholomew finds us. I see blood on my hand, a bright streak across the knuckles, before I realize I’ve got blood all over my jacket and front. I can feel it now pouring out of my nose and I swallow big globs of it down my throat as Mrs. Bartholomew pulls me up by the elbow. She tilts my head and squeezes my nose with a hankie, which hurts like heck, and tells me to hold it until the bleeding stops. Of course we’re not wasting any time getting to the principal’s office so I have to walk and apply direct pressure at the same time. Jolene is right there, holding my arm to guide me, and Mrs. Bartholomew has Dale by the shoulder. His friends have split. I guess it wasn’t a pack after all. She marches him straight to the office, and tells Jolene to take me to the school nurse.
As the nurse cleans me up I try to make it seem not so bad. “You should see the other guy,” I say. “He’s got even more of my blood on him.” The nurse gives a little smile and Jolene laughs, because she knows it’s true. The nurse checks my nose and says it isn’t broken, just bruised, and gives me aspirin for the pain.
Jolene waits with me in the nurse’s room while the principal calls my mom.
“Are you scared?” she asks.
“A little,” I say.
“Don’t be scared,” she says.
“I think I’m getting suspended.”
“It’s not bad,” she says. “Everyone talks about it like it’s bad, but it’s just a couple days of no school.”
“Were you ever suspended?”
“Not really,” she says, and I wonder what she could possibly mean. It seems like more of a yes-or-no question. After a minute she says, “When I lived with my mom, sometimes I didn’t go to school. I stayed at home. Sometimes it felt strange, but then I would find things to do.”
“Were you by yourself?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Mostly. But that was back in first and second grade. A long time ago.”
She looks down at her hands and decides to pick at a hangnail. I want to know more, but I can’t ask. Jolene has lived with us since we were both eight. Her mom is my dad’s older sister, and Dad drove to the train depot in Seattle to pick up Jolene when she came down from Alaska, all by herself, after her mom went to prison. I remember the first time I saw Jolene coming up the walk with Dad. She was wearing a white anorak with a fur-trimmed hood and a pair of mukluks her grandma had made for her. Her face was skinny and fierce, all hard angles and beauty, like the carved talisman of walrus tusk that she keeps in her sock drawer.
I know for a fact that the day Jolene came to live with us was the day my dad gave up drinking forever. Not that he was much of a drinker to start with, not like some folks. He mostly would just drink when his buddies came over. They would go out to the shed and smoke and drink beers and talk about Korea. He drank other times too, I guess. Well Jolene comes and I guess Dad figures that he’s all she’s got now, or we’re all she’s got now, and he quits. I wonder if he will come to the principal’s office. Or if my mom will come. Or Grandma Wilma.
One thing I know for sure: my dad’s not a drunk.
I think about this and I get riled at Dale Davis all over again. Jerk! My entire face is throbbing.
After a while the door opens, and the nurse says my mom is here, and Jolene can go back to her class. Jolene asks if she can please stay with me, but the nurse tells her no. Jolene slips through the door without looking back, but I tell her thanks and see you at home as she leaves.
Mom is standing in the hallway outside of the principal’s office, looking out the window at the empty playground. Mom, I say, and she turns her face toward me. A look of surprise, then maybe anger, ripple across her face. I feel small. She opens her arms and hugs me, then pulls back and scans my face and jacket.
“Will it come out?” I ask.
She frowns a little. “We’ll see,” she says. “We’ll try.”
She hugs me again. “Are you okay?”
That’s when I start to cry. I wonder why moms can make you cry when you don’t know you have to. Where were you? I ask. In town, she says. She fishes a tissue out of her pocket and puts her arm around me as we walk to the car. She sits in the car with me at the school while the story falls out of my mouth in rough little pieces. I cry so hard my nose starts to bleed again. She’s out of tissues, so she grabs one of Lionel’s jersey work gloves that’s lying on the car seat and catches the blood with it. It smells like sweat and car-engine oil, which means it smells like Lionel. I hold it to my face with my head tipped back as she drives us home.
Turns out I’m suspended for a day, and that jerk Dale is out for the rest of the week, which is only three days, but still. At least he got it a little worse than me.
We get home and I think Mom will tell me what’s going down but she doesn’t. She calls her friend Janet and makes some coffee, then takes my jacket and sweater to the sink to wash the blood out. I stand next to her in the kitchen.
“Mom,” I say. “I was scared when you weren’t here.”
She doesn’t stop scrubbing the collar. Watery brown suds cling to her fingernails. “Umhmm,” she says. “But you shouldn’t be afraid when Grandma Wilma is here. You should know that.”
She turns on the faucet to rinse.
“When... when can you tell me where you were?”
“When your dad gets back.”
This cannot be good. In my mind I see them setting us down at the table, and I realize how much I don’t want this to happen. The words just tumble out of my mouth then.
“Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”
She stops working and looks at me, a hard look.
“No,” she says. “Of course not.”
And then she tells me where she was: Pierce County Jail. We sit down at the table and she says Dad and Lionel were arrested last night. For fishing. For fishing on our river, where we have always fished. The game wardens caught them. Took their nets. Took them to jail. Mom paid a fine to get them out. As she’s talking, different pictures spin through my mind. Dad’s truck. The nets. Lionel’s empty room. Apple spice cake. She says we’re in this now, that the Indians got to fight. Just like the old days. I want her to say what Grandma Wilma says, that everything is going to be okay. But she doesn’t.
I’m sitting on the sofa watching TV when Lionel, Jolene, and Janey come home. There’s no need to explain my puffy face, since news like that goes ’round like fire. Lionel says my face looks bad.
“It feels like a baseball mitt,” I say.
“Your face is purple,” Jolene says. “Are you sure it isn’t broken?”
“No,” I say. “But there’s nothing to do anyway. Not like I can put a cast on it.” Janey laughs, and then I do, too, picturing me with a cast on my face. Lionel says he didn’t know I wanted out of school so bad I’d get suspended for it.
“What about you?” I ask. “You went to jail.”
He grins at that.
I tell him I was afraid that he’d run off to the Army. Nah, he says, I’d go Navy like Dad. I tell him that isn’t very comforting, and he shrugs.
After dinner we watch Dad and Lionel get their boots and coats on. Dad goes out and lays a net in the bed of the truck, and Lionel gets in the cab. Mom brings them a thermos of coffee. She stands on the front porch watching them. My coat is still wet, so I wrap myself in the green blanket off the sofa and go out. The sky is deep blue and still. The stars are awake. Dad waves at us, then the cab door snaps shut. We watch the truck creep down the drive, then turn onto the highway.
I sense my mom turning her face away from the road, away from the glow of red taillights, now disappeared in the dark. We look at the sky together. She points and says, There they are. She is pointing at the fish traps. Her voice is flat and matteroffact. There they are. Nisqually fishing weirs. I look too. In school we’ve learned that these stars are called Orion and Orion’s Belt. I nod, I don’t speak. The stars to me seem cold and jagged and far, far away.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.
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