Grammy slid the pack of Misty 100s across the kitchen table. Under the ceiling light the age spots on the back of her hand looked like sprinkles of dirt, and like the dirt, the age spots hadn’t always been there.
“Help yourself to a smoke, Robbie,” Grammy said. “I’ll make us some coffee.”
Grammy was sick. Not cough-cough sick, the way some old people got before they slid over to the other side like a pack of smokes. Well—maybe she was cough-cough sick, but not in her lungs. The cough came from her brain, from below the soft gray stuff, burrowed deep in tissue, something tickling her there in an indescribable way. And like a thick, hacking chest cough, the one from Grammy’s brain was bad.
“Go on, Robbie,” Grammy said. She poured water into the coffee maker and then dumped the old coffee grounds into the wastebasket with a thump. “The lighter’s in my purse.”
I dragged the pack to me, the back of my hand dirtless. With my fingernails, I pulled out the cigarette. It smelled like mint and was longer than my fingers. When I put it between my lips, it dangled there, the tip of the cigarette so far away.
“Robbie,” Grammy said, “I know you do it. Mom knows you do it. The lighter’s in my purse. But, please—don’t get me in trouble.” Grammy went to the fridge and opened it.
Robbie had been Grammy’s little brother, and he’d been dead since before us natives even had rights. I never knew him. To me, he was only a relative who left young and stayed young. Little Robbie. Little Great Uncle Robbie. He’d been my age—twelve—when the river took him, keeping him little forever.
“Are you hungry?” Grammy said.
“No,” I said. “I’m all set, Frances.” Mom had sent me down to see if Grammy needed firewood brought in—that was why I was here—and before I left Mom told me to play along if Grammy’s brain coughed. Mom didn’t say brain cough, though. She said, David, if Grammy starts up, go with it.
Grammy’s purse hung on the side of the kitchen chair. With the Misty hanging from my lips, I unzipped her purse and dug through papers, receipts, some braided sweetgrass, loser scratch-off tickets. Dirt in the bottom of her purse lodged itself under my fingernails. The loose change stuck to my hand. Two times I pulled from the purse what I thought was a lighter, but was actually lipstick and mascara. I took the purse from the chair and set it on the table under the light, and really dug my face in there until I finally found the lighter. A purple Bic.
I sat back down, the cigarette filter all wet and slimy and damp in my mouth. The coffee maker gurgled, then steamed and hissed, and finally water tunneled through the fresh grounds and sputtered out and into the stained coffee pot.
The lighter warmed the longer I held it, and I wondered how I should smoke or who I should smoke like. I could, maybe, smoke like my sister, Paige, cigarette always held close to her face between drags. Or I could smoke like Mom’s boyfriend, Frick: take tiny, tiny puffs, but expel the largest cloud of smoke. Then there was Mom, who only lit her cigarette, took one drag, and then forgot she even held it until the ash bent and then she flicked it, barely making the ashtray.
But then I realized I couldn’t smoke the way they did, because I was supposed to be Grammy’s little brother. Go with it, Mom said in my head.
I took the cigarette from my mouth, dried the moist filter as best I could, and then put it back between my lips. As I did with the woodstove at home, I flicked the lighter, except instead of putting flame to birch bark or newspaper, I touched the flame to tobacco. It caught, sizzled, and smoke rose up, stung my eyes. Smoke dived down, burned my throat.
Don’t cough, I told myself. Don’t cough.
The coffee maker stopped dripping.
And then I coughed. Grammy laughed.
“Think you’d be used to it,” Grammy said. “Mom did say you were digging into the family’s blessing tobacco. Said she couldn’t catch you, but knew you were doing it.”
She was talking to Robbie, so I didn’t say anything.
I tried the cigarette again. It was easier on the throat, but it was still coarse, like swallowing sand.
“Misty’s are my favorites,” Grammy said. “Harsh but not too harsh.”
“I agree,” I said.
Grammy laughed. She reached in the cupboard and took down two white mugs, red lipstick faintly staining the rims.
“Sugar? Cream?” she said.
“Both,” I said.
She fixed the coffee, set mine in front of me, and took a seat. My ash was getting long, and so I flicked the cigarette over the ashtray. The ashes flung up and over and landed on the other side of the table, and Grammy swiped them to the floor.
Grammy lit her own cigarette, took a drag, and set it down on the table, the lit end dangling off. She picked up her coffee, blew on it sharply, and sipped, her eyes on Robbie.
I could have smoked more of the cigarette, but I butted it. I didn’t even sip my coffee twice before Grammy offered me another Misty.
“Go on,” she said. “Help yourself.”
“I’m okay,” I said. My throat hurt.
“No, no,” she said. “Please. Have another.”
“That’s okay, Frances. Really.”
Grammy sipped her coffee, and then set the mug down. “Have another,” she said.
By the seventh cigarette, I realized Grammy was setting me up. Or setting Robbie up. I was sitting in that chair, watching Grammy grow angrier and angrier with Robbie, forcing cigarette after cigarette on him.
“Smoke another,” she said after I butted each one.
I was being stubborn—I could have run home at any time. But I stayed until my body couldn’t take it anymore, until my head was banging and banging, until the coffee acid in my stomach begged to rise up and out.
I didn’t know how many I smoked, but finally I shot up—the chair tipping over—and I bolted for the front door.
“That’ll teach you to steal the blessing tobacco!” Grammy said.
Down the road, I dry-heaved into some brush.
My knees shook and my eyes watered. Everything was blurry. I weaved into the woods, split through sharp pine branches, stopping to lean on an oak every so often to try and puke before bobbing and bobbing—branches scratching my skin—farther and farther from Grammy’s house.
On the riverbank, my knees in mud, I tried to throw up but could not. It just wouldn’t come. It was in there—so much was deep down in there—but it would not come, would not rise up. I burped and gagged and burped, but only saliva dripped from my mouth, sending ripples through the river when it hit, making it harder to see in the brown water what I looked like. But there was no telling. The water was too dark. Dragonfly nymphs scuttled by, and water bugs glided on the water.
I was thirsty, but the river was a brown watery grit, filled with poison from the mill up north that sent down wads of pink and shit-colored bubbles that eventually dumped out into Penobscot Bay. I needed a drink, so I cupped my hands and dipped in, and I slurped the water. It tasted fine, but it still sickened me. I tried to throw up once more, but I couldn’t, and I almost fell into the river, had to catch myself, hands all muddy.
Before standing, I splashed water on my face. My headache was fading, but that nausea in my gut was trapped.
I hurried back through the woods, hoping I didn’t look ill, hoping I looked fine. Excuses are easier if you look fine.
At home, Frick was outside under the hood of his gray truck, swearing, and I ran past him and up the cement steps and through the back door. Mom was where I’d last seen her, at the kitchen sink with a bottle of Connoisseurs Silver Jewelry Cleaner, freshening what she hoped to sell at the pawnshop in Overtown where Paige worked, and the smell of that cleaner—the smell of old pennies—made me wonder if everything was going to smell worse than it actually was.
“Did she have enough wood?” Mom said.
Grammy never let me check, never let Robbie check. “Yeah,” I said.
I kicked off my shoes, and through the hole in my sock my big toe stuck out. I put it back in and hurried down the hallway to my room. Paige came out of hers and bumped into me.
“Jesus,” she said, waving her hand in front of her nose. “Grammy smoke you out over there?”
Fully clothed, I crawled into bed, my muddy knees staining the white sheet.
Paige was in my room, watching me over my bed when I woke. It felt like I’d slept forever, but I must not have, since Paige was here and not gone to work at the pawnshop.
“Chagooksis,” she said. “Are you okay?”
Maybe she saw the worry in my face, or maybe I just didn’t look so fresh, like a butted cigarette or old jewelry, because she sat down on the bed and massaged my scalp.
“You don’t feel well?” she said.
I shook my head. I no longer had a headache, but my stomach gurgled, and it felt as if something moved about my insides.
“You were making a lot of noise in your sleep,” Paige said.
“Did Mommy hear me?”
“No, she’s gone. She’s been at Grammy’s.”
“Don’t tell her,” I said.
“Tell her what?”
“Listen, just don’t tell her.”
And then I pushed Paige aside and burped and gagged off the side of the bed. Paige grabbed the wastebasket but I told her no.
“It won’t come out,” I said.
“David,” Paige said. “You’re freaking me out. Why are you sick?”
“Listen,” I said, and I told her what happened. Paige stopped rubbing my scalp and instead stared at me, her face scrunched up like she was trying to make out something in the distance. I ended the story by asking, “Am I going to die?”
Paige laughed and shook her head. “How many cigarettes did you smoke?”
“I lost track after fourteen.”
“Am I?” I said.
“No,” she said. “You just got pretty sick from the nicotine.”
Paige went to the kitchen and brought me back a ginger ale.
“Just sip it and burp,” she said and started for the door.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“To smoke a cigarette and get ready for work.”
While she smoked in the bathroom and combed her hair—the snapping of tiny brown knots—I sipped the ginger ale in bed. The condensation dripped off the can onto my shirt and seeped cold through the cotton onto my chest.
Every few minutes Paige came in and checked on me. She didn’t speak, just nodded, and I nodded back. I had to pee already, and even though I was starting to feel better, I knew if I got up my stomach would spin out of control.
Mom came home, and Paige met her in the hallway. I could smell their smoking.
“Aren’t you late?” Mom said, and she didn’t let Paige answer. “Look what my mother gave me. Four silver necklaces, this gold locket, this silver watch, and . . . ” She stopped, rummaging through a paper bag. “Look at these rings. How much you think I’d get?”
“I can’t pay you more just because you’re my mother,” Paige said.
“But the watch is in great condition.”
“It’s stainless steel,” Paige said.
Mom crinkled the bag. I didn’t think she liked Paige’s job. Actually, I thought Mom hated that Paige had a job while Mom didn’t.
Paige came to say goodbye. She stood in my doorway, wearing black pants and a red blouse.
“See ya later,” she said, and then she laughed and mouthed, “Feel better.”
When Paige was gone, Mom came down the hallway and into my room.
“Why are you in bed?” Mom said.
“I was tired.”
“Too tired to fill your grandmother’s wood box?”
“She said never mind about the wood,” I said.
“Why are you fibbing? Grammy said you didn’t even show up. Where were you?”
I sat up in bed, and I felt nauseated. “I was there,” I told her. “Grammy wasn’t herself.”
Mom stared at me. “She started up? Well, you should’ve listened to me and filled that wood box. The river may be thawed and running again, but it still gets cold at night.”
“Was she okay when you saw her?”
“She was sleeping when I got there, but I woke her up after I saw the wood box was empty.”
I sipped the ginger ale. “Did you fill it for her?”
“That’s your job,” she said. “Get up.”
“Yes, really. It’ll take ten minutes.”
Mom left the doorway and went down the hall. I got up from the bed, the trapped feeling in my stomach loosening up and slipping out. I burped once, yet my nerves were shot. My legs shook. Something bad seemed to be my fault. I guessed it was the smoking. I didn’t want Mom to know about it, just in case she’d snap on me. Or even worse, on Grammy. I couldn’t do that to Grammy.
My sheets were muddy and I covered the mess by making my bed.
In the bathroom, I scrubbed the smell of smoke away until my hands were red.
At the front door, Mom handed me a heavy garbage bag. “Take this out, too.” She kissed the top of my head, opened the door for me, and sent me out. Frick was still working on the truck. As I passed him, he lay awkwardly in the passenger seat trying to disconnect something from under the glove compartment. “Shit, shit!” he said. “Fucking piece of shit!”
On the walk there I kept trying to push from my mind the woman I’d met earlier, but I couldn’t. I prepared for wickedness.
Grammy’s house was dark. The porch light was off, and the door was wide open. When I went inside, I made sure it clicked shut behind me. The only light—blue and white—that was shining came from the TV in the living room. Grammy sat in her recliner with her arms on the armrests, lit cigarette between her fingers, smoke coiling to the ceiling.
“Grammy?” I said.
“Oh, chagook!” she laughed. “You scared me.”
I stepped into the living room.
“Mom told me to fill the wood box,” I said.
“She won’t stop about that damn wood box. Go ahead, I suppose.”
I went back outside and around the back of the house to where a dark green tarp covered a cord of wood. The tarp crinkled and dumped water when I lifted it. I stacked seven logs of ash in my arms and carried the load back inside. The bark was digging at my forearm, and I felt a piece slipping loose, so I hurried down the hallway and came to the wood box, and as I got close to the wood box, the pieces just started to fall, but I lunged forward so all of the wood fell directly out of my arms and banged and rattled into the box.
“That’s how it goes,” Grammy said. She smoked her cigarette. “Don’t carry so much next time.”
I filled the wood box in two trips.
“Well, I have to—"
“You eat?” Grammy said.
“No,” I said. “I should get home and do that.”
“I’ll cook you something. Go on, have a seat.”
I didn’t want to stay, didn’t want to be alone with her too long, but I decided to remain with her, and I was glad I did. She turned more lights on in the house and I sat at the kitchen table and she fired up the stove and fried me up two greasy eggs and drippy strips of bacon and two slices of toast with raspberry jam on it and told me a joke about a brown bear wiping its ass with a white rabbit. And after I ate the food, after I made her tell me the joke one more time—my laughter making her laugh—and after she took my plate and rinsed it and covered the dirty dishes with a cloth as was our custom to tell the spirits to stay away—that there was no food for offering—she handed me a freezer-burned orange creamsicle. And when she turned off all the lights and ushered me in front of the TV in the living room, I saw smoke, yeah, but I saw Grammy and myself under all of it, all of it hanging over us.
She turned on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was trying to figure out in the dim lighting if my creamsicle was dripping over the plastic wrapper and onto the couch, and so I ate the creamsicle as fast as I could so as not to make a mess. My mouth was cold and numb.
Grammy had her eyes partly open, dozing, a cigarette wasting away between her fingers, like Mom. I turned my attention to the news, holding the wooden creamsicle stick and the wrapper in my hand. Peter Jennings was gearing up to a segment about NASA and Pioneer 10, how it sent its last signal, and how NASA had no plans to contact Pioneer 10. No plans! None. The metal ship was just going to keep on going way out there in quiet, quiet glides of black, and since it was a thing, a machine, it couldn’t see like us, and we way back here would never, ever know if the machine was okay. I wished that the near impossible would happen: that a passing space rock would collide with it, shatter it to pieces, and send it broken toward the stars.
The news ended, and while the TV went black I wondered when Grammy would send her last message? In her recliner, barely rocking, she snored, her cigarette ash long, bending, slipping from her fingers. I saw to it, plucked the cigarette from Grammy’s fingers, and when the ash fell to the carpet I rubbed it in with my foot. I didn’t set Grammy’s smoke in the ashtray, but instead I held it, looking at the filter and the red coal dimly lit, and I thought how I could take some if I wanted to, could commit to it in a way that was immediately attainable and consequential. I put it to my lips.
Grammy was looking at me.
“It was gonna fall,” I said. I put out the cigarette in the ashtray.
“Woliwoni,” she said.
Grammy sat up, resituated herself in her recliner. Then she looked at the creamsicle wrapper and its dried wooden stick. “Go on,” she told me. “Have another.”
I read the stove clock in Grammy’s kitchen before I left, before she asked me if I wanted to take any creamsicles with me. I told her no, and as I walked out the front door she closed it behind me and I heard the click of the deadbolt. The night sky was so packed with stars that I felt the urge to squint. My stomach was grumbling from the four creamsicles I’d eaten, and probably from the cigarettes, too. A day with Grammy, I thought. Smokes and sweets.
At home, all Mom’s jewelry was spread out on the kitchen table. Mom and Frick were in the living room, watching TV, three empty Barefoot bottles of wine on the coffee table. As I stood there in the living room, waiting for Mom to say something, Frick spoke for her.
“You were at your Grandmother’s?” he said.
Yes, I told him.
The house was scrubbed clean and smelled like bleach, the way it did when Mom was really upset and had scrubbed the floors like she was trying to erase them.
I brushed my teeth, and my tongue was bright orange, and no amount of scraping with the toothbrush removed it.
“Goodnight,” I said from the hallway.
“Goodnight,” Frick said.
“Goodnight, mumma,” I said.
In my room, I undressed, slipped on a pair of gym shorts, and pulled the blankets down and got in.
At midnight, when Paige returned home from work, their bickering woke me up.
“It’s the way you said it,” Mom said. “And in front of all those people.”
“You asked for it,” Paige said. “I offered you way more than what they were worth and you wouldn’t take it.”
“You were ripping me off,” Mom said. “You’re always ripping me off.”
“Me? I give you most of my check, and then you try and come to my work and get more money than your junk is worth. And that’s what it is—junk! Old crappy necklaces, a piece of shit watch that doesn’t work, and tarnished silver rings.”
“Quiet, you two,” Frick said.
Their voices lowered.
“You embarrassed me,” Paige said. “You were rude and put me in a difficult spot, and I still offered you more for the jewelry but you wouldn’t take it.”
“It wasn’t enough,” Mom said. “Just say it. You didn’t want to give me more.”
“I would have given you the whole store if that was how it worked, but it doesn’t.”
The phone rang. It was curious to hear the house go so quiet, to hear only the phone and nothing but the phone, and right then I realized that it was no longer the day Grammy made Robbie smoke all those cigarettes, but the day after. I never really thought much of the hours between midnight and waking in the morning as being part of the next day. It had always felt like an in-between time, but there was no in-between. It was always now.
Mom answered the phone. “Who is this?” she said. Then again, “Who?”
A lighter flicked.
“She was found?” Mom said. “Where?”
I was sitting up, listening. I had the same question as Mom. Was she found in the woods? Walking the roads? I kept imagining her in somebody else’s house, watching TV on their couch or cooking in their kitchen.
“Oh, God,” Mom said. “Bring her here.”
Mom hung up. Nobody said anything for a while, but the house sounded louder than when the phone had been ringing. The kitchen sink turned on, and water sprayed against the metal pan. The fridge opened once. Someone stepped on the part of the kitchen floor that creaked.
Then Mom spoke to Paige. “Is your bed made up?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I’ll get you blankets for the couch,” Mom said.
Right outside my bedroom door, Mom and Paige were going through the closet, getting blankets and pillows for the couch. They worked in quiet reaches at the shelf. And because they were there, so close to my door, I decided to get up and ask what was going on.
“Get back in bed,” Mom said. I knew she would get mad if I didn’t listen, if I didn’t give her what she wanted. “Go to sleep,” she said.
Soon, from in my bedroom, I heard Paige say someone was pulling in. I pressed my ear against the bedroom door. The back door peeled open, and I heard Grammy speak. “I didn’t mean to,” she was saying, crying. “If I’d known.”
“It’s okay,” Mom said. “Frances, come on. Come into the living room.”
“Who are you?” Grammy said. “They said he’s dead. Drowned!”
Grammy stopped crying and then she screamed, one short quick yell, and it sickened me more than all those cigarettes.
There were men’s voices. Tribal police. EMTs. They spoke over Grammy’s questions. It was hard to make out what was said. Something about her car being totaled, something about finding her shivering and screaming down by the river. The officer spoke louder, and I heard him much better. He said when they touched her, when they tried to gently pull her away from the riverbank, she pointed at them, asked them to help her find him in the water, asked them to call to him, and then she stuck her thumb and finger under her tongue and whistled to the stars.
And then Grammy whistled just like that in the house, and everyone quieted.
“Where is he?” she said.
“Grammy,” Paige said. “Where’s who?”
“Grammy? I’m not your damn Grammy.”
When the officers and the EMTs left, Mom tried to get Grammy from the kitchen to Paige’s bed, but Grammy kept on talking, kept on crying.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” she said.
“You’re okay,” Mom said. “Come on, now. Let’s get you changed.”
I tensed against my door. Footsteps walked closer to the hallway, closer to Paige’s room.
“I can’t!” Grammy said. “No one saw him today but me.”
I pulled myself up off the floor by the doorknob, and I opened the door. Mom and Paige were on either side of Grammy, whose pants were wet and covered with mud. Mom stomped toward me, pointing to get back in the bedroom, but Grammy stopped her.
“Robbie,” Grammy said.
The way she stared at me, the relief in her puffy eyes. I wondered what that felt like. You could see it, absolutely see it. But to feel it. Perhaps it was like waking from a dream in which something hunted you—not a little, but violently hunted you—and when you sat up in bed you took a deep, shivering breath as crisp as a glass of ice water.
“It’s okay, Frances,” I said.
Grammy moved away from Paige, past Mom, and came to Robbie, held his face in hands that didn’t look age spotted, because the hallway light was off. “Why did they lie?” she said.
“Come on, Frances,” I told her. Mom, Paige, and I brought her to Paige’s bed.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Come here, gwusis. Abin.” Sit, she said.
She wrapped her arm around me, pulled me in. She scratched at my head, massaged my scalp. She sniffled. Paige was standing there, watching, and Mom was just coming back with the couch blankets. She dropped them onto the floor and made a bed large enough for her and Paige to sleep on.
“I’m sorry,” Grammy said. “I shouldn’t have done it. I shouldn’t have done it.”
I leaned harder into Grammy’s holding. Mom’s eyes were on me, wondering. “Frances,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
Grammy let go of me and leaned away. “But you shouldn’t have tricked me,” she said. Her voice quivered the louder she spoke. “That was not right.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I wondered if Robbie was sorry for dying.
Grammy shook her head. “You two need to leave,” she said to Mom and Paige.
They stood in the hallway, and I heard Paige telling Mom about the cigarettes, and I tried to listen to how she told the story—because how it was told mattered—but then Grammy grabbed me by the shoulders and pointed her long finger in my face. “You think that was right, what you did?”
I grabbed the mattress hard; I couldn’t go with it. I pulled my face away from her finger. “You’re sick, Grammy.”
Mom and Paige looked in.
“Get out!” Grammy told them. “I said, get out!”
“David,” Mom said. “Come on.”
I tried to get up, but Grammy pulled me back down, and then I wiggled loose from Grammy’s grip. When I ran she grabbed my leg, and I fell forward onto my face.
“That’s enough!” Mom said. She was rough with me as she picked me up and pushed me out of the room and slammed the door.
In the living room, Frick sat in the rocking chair, dozing, a bottle of wine at his feet. When I came in, one of his eyes opened and he looked at me.
“You want a cigarette?” was all he said, and he laughed himself to sleep in the chair.
It wasn’t until around 4 a.m. that Grammy quieted. I sat on the couch, Frick snoring in little bursts in the rocking chair, and I listened as Mom scolded Grammy. And all Grammy would say was that what Robbie did was worse, stealing and tricking, and that she would do it all over again. It was all sickness, the whole thing, something that couldn’t be cured, but—and maybe it was because I was tired—I felt that I had done something terrible—like I had been the one doing the violent hunting—and I wanted to get up and right it all, but I didn’t know how. Maybe that was how Great Uncle Robbie had felt, like he had no choices, that no right way existed to fix anything at all. In the moments before my eyes shut, hearing Frick snore and the clock tick toward 4 a.m., I felt like I knew Robbie, felt like I had memories of him where he took me fishing or hunting, and when I couldn’t take the fish off the hook or when I couldn’t kill the white rabbit, he told me that that was fine, and he unhooked the fish—its jaw popping, gills throbbing—and plopped it into the river, or he took the rifle from my hands, and after all that we walked away through mud or snow until I stopped walking but he kept on going and going and going out there in quiet strides through a dark-pined forest until he was gone.