Dancing in Moonlight with Apaches

I had been reading aloud for about an hour when I glanced up and saw Mother’s eyes widening at the sight of something over my left shoulder.

My God. There’s an Indian.”

I twisted quickly to my left and saw him. He was leaning to the window of the car, his palms flat on his knees. Relief flooded me. I threw open the car door, swinging my legs out from under the steering wheel onto the ground.

“Oh man, am I glad to see you.”

Then I remembered that I was wearing nothing but my long johns. I glanced up from the white, waffled fabric to the Apache’s face with a quick laugh, swung back around behind the steering wheel, closed the door and rolled down the window, grinning.  “I forgot I wasn’t dressed,” I laughed. “Got my clothes wet trying to dig us out and had to take ‘em off.”

He did not alter his position or his expression. He regarded us both without any expression, actually.

“We’ve been stuck here for a couple of hours I guess, hoping somebody would come along. Sure am glad to see you.”

He waited. He was a slight, middle-aged man of just below medium height, wearing jeans, cowboy boots, western shirt with snaps and a cowboy hat. His face was like dark, twisted leather.

“Been having a little cocktail hour,” I said, glancing at the red plastic cup of scotch and water in Mother’s trembling hand. “And reading.” I held up my paperback anthology of Native American poetry.

He waited for a moment and then he said, “Do you want me to pull you out?”

My grin faded a little. “Uhhhh…yeah. That would be great.”

He straightened, walked back to his faded red pickup (which we had not heard approaching), got in, turned over the ignition and backed away. Mother and I looked at each other.

For years afterward, Mother will say, “Tell about the Apaches and the snow,” the moral of the story always being that Cynthia’s adventures are generally death-defying and that she has had enough of them.

I believe it was in February that I had said to Mother, “Let’s go on an adventure,” and she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh no. No more adventures. Every time I go on an adventure with you, I barely escape with my life. Never again.”

I have to admit that driving into the White Mountains of Arizona in February is not normal. Even the Indians hunker down.

But she went. She always does.

We left Phoenix with a cooler of booze and ice in the back seat of our big Lincoln Continental and a cooler of fried chicken, potato salad, deviled eggs, brownies, etc. in the trunk. Stopped for a picnic overlooking the two-thousand-foot plunge into the Salt River Canyon, then spiraled down into it and back up the other side into a high desert of juniper pine.

By afternoon, we were in the mountains, cutting across to Greer on a back road. I think we were on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. I had the radio turned to the Apache radio station so we could listen to the DJ clowning around in Apache. The only thing we understood was, “Glen Caaambuuullll—all right!”

It was a cold, bright day. I remember the little creek to our left flickering like mica through Ponderosa pines. About 3:30 p.m., we bumped off the last of the paved road onto ground that was still a bit soft from the last snow melt.

I saw the patch of snow in the road and the shallow ruts in the mud around it, but the patch seemed no larger really than my car and I thought we’d whisk right over it. We sank in.

“Oh shit.” I pressed the accelerator once, felt the tires spin and let up.

Slinging out of the car, I walked around to the rear passenger side, crouched and looked. Mother put her window down and leaned her head out the window.

“I think I can dig us out.”

“I don’t think you should even try.”

“Mother, we can’t just sit here.” I got the tire iron out of the trunk and knelt by the tire, first sweeping snow away with the iron and then, slinging that aside, leaning in to sweep with both arms. I tucked a towel up under the tire as tightly as I could pack it.

By this time, Mother had rolled up her window and was sitting in the car facing the windshield, hugging herself with both arms, the white fur of her coat collar turned up high around her small face. I got back in the car and eased down on the accelerator. The tires spun. I got out and walked around behind the car. The left rear tire had spit out a wad of muddy towel. I got back in the car.

“No way to get us out now. We’ll just have to wait until somebody comes along.”

“But what if nobody does?”

“Somebody always does.”

She lifted her brows.

Struggling out of my wet clothes and dropping them onto the floor in back, I got on my knees in my long johns and opened the cooler in the back seat. “It’s cocktail time,” I sang, digging a red plastic cup into the ice and unscrewing the lid on Mother’s scotch.

She smiled as I handed her the drink. I poured myself a bourbon and water and twisted back around behind the steering wheel, dropping into my seat with a satisfied sigh

“If we’re here all night, we may freeze to death.”

“No way. We got food, we got booze, gas. I can keep the car warm by turning the heat on for a few minutes at a time. Anyway, somebody’ll come along eventually.” I looked at her, grinning. “This is fun.”

“You would think so.”

“Here, hold this.” I handed her my drink and squirmed back around on my knees to reach into the back seat again.

“What are you doing now?”

“Want my book of Injun potry,” I grunted, pawing for the bag of books and cassettes in the back seat. “Gonna read you some Injun potry.” I finally got hold of my paperback and slammed back down behind the steering wheel with another grunt.

“I do wish you would settle down.”

I had been reading about an hour or so when Mother saw the Indian. Moments later, as he backed away in his pickup, I turned to Mother with a grin. “I told you somebody would come.”

We were waiting in silence as the last light of day faded and went out.

“He’s not coming back,” Mother said quietly.

“He’ll come back. There is no way he’s not coming back.”

“He’s not coming, I tell you.”

“He wouldn’t offer to help and then leave us here.”

“He’s not coming.”

“Mother, just drink up.”

I remember the grinding gears of the truck, the yellow, narrow-set headlights in our rear window. And the two very large shadows filling the cab of the truck.

“I brought my wife and daughter,” Gordon grinned. “I bet you were expecting Indyens to come riding up shooting bows and arrows.” He laughed.

“Not really.”

“White people always think we still ride around shooting bows and arrows.” He was having a good time. Maybe he’d had a few beers on the way back. He must have gone home and said to his wife and daughter sitting in front of the television digging into giant-size bags of Cheetos, “You won’t believe what I found out on the road. Two white ladies drinking liquor and reading Indyen book. One old lady, one younger. Younger one in underwear.” They would have hoisted themselves in the truck to come back with him and see.

Gordon tied the length of rope he had brought with him to the frame of the car up under the back bumper and pulled us out with yank. I got out and met him in the headlights of his truck. I wanted to thank him, so I offered drinks and food.

The two women wallowed to the car and got in the back seat. I believe to this day that the front end of my big Lincoln lifted. I don’t recall the women speaking at all, but Gordon kept up a lively chatter about Indyens and whites. I asked him what he did. Like most Apaches, he was a cowboy.

Around 9:00, Mother suggested in a low voice that we ought to find a place to spend the night. Our guests got out and our front tires touched ground (I imagined). I don’t remember getting turned around and headed back out to the main road, or the pickup pulling off into a small clearing. I only remember standing in moonlight, drinking and laughing and saying, “How about let’s get together next summer? We’ll come back with our husbands and we’ll have a cookout.”

Yeah. A cookout. All right.” Gordon did a little dance, bounding from foot to foot in a gradual circling motion, the way Apaches dance. Yelping. For our entertainment.

“Nut,” I said, gazing into the dark wall of trees around us, thinking that only a century earlier, the word “Apache” could make a man vomit with fear, make children mute, make a woman’s face go cold and white to the bone—a reflection that was deeply sad to me and yet, how good it was, how exhilarating that we were having fun together now, that we were safe this night only because we had been found by Apaches.

If you wait long enough, you know, everything goes away. Everything.

I don’t remember the drive to Show Low, only that the streets were dark and deserted when we got there. We were both desperate to find a place to sleep. We knew it was dangerously cold, but we wouldn’t know until morning that a blizzard was moving in and that Gordon had saved our lives.

(This story might have been titled, “Getting Drunk in Moonlight with Apaches,” or “Saved by Apaches.” It was a many-storied night.)

We found a seedy a roadside motel. Dark. Closed.

“Dear God. If we have to spend the night in the car, we’ll freeze to death.”

“Somebody is in there. Probably lives in the back. I’ll get ‘em up.” I have a vague memory of high weeds and a junk yard, a small dirty window above my head, of banging on a door (a trailer door?) with my fist.

Now we are sitting cross-legged on a sagging double bed in the impenetrable darkness of a shabby, sour-smelling room, gorging on whatever was left in the cooler and laughing so hard I don’t know how we didn’t choke to death. I know we finally settled down, vowing to be quiet and go to sleep, but the wall heater got us going again. Every time it kicked in, rattling and roaring like a 747 taking off, we’d snort and jerk with laughter, throw ourselves on our backs and howl. I have no idea what time we finally passed out.

Early the next morning, I got up and tip-toed (not wanting to touch the carpet with my bare feet) to the window to see where we had landed. Peeked out the curtains and stood there in frowning consternation. “There’s no color. I don’t get it. Everything’s black and white.” I honestly couldn’t figure it out.

“It snowed, you fool.”

We got dressed and ventured out into a bitterly cold, grey day. Hoisting our cooler and suitcases onto the back seat of the car, I discovered chicken bones and whatnot on the floor back there. “Injuns been here.” I couldn’t resist it. Mother grimaced.

We turned, in blowing snow, into the last gas station before entering the road to Greer, a two-lane blacktop already telescoping into a blur of white. I was worried about our tires or our heater—I can’t remember what—but I asked the station attendant if he could check it. He was a tall, good-looking Apache, his black hair tied back in a ponytail with a strip of red cloth, and he made no attempt to conceal his hostility.

“I mean, if we break down out there we could freeze to death,” I worried, looking up at him, hoping for some reassurance.

“Strike a match,” he said and walked off.

I got in the car and slammed the door. “Son of a bitch.”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“He’s just a son of a bitch, that’s all. Pay back’s a bitch, I guess.”

“Maybe we better turn back.”

“Coming or going, it’s the same. Might as well plunge in.”

After that, all I remember is white. Once, suddenly, a shadow heaved above us and a snow plow with winking lights churned past, vanishing instantly. I could see nothing, not even the hood of the car. It was like driving through whipped cream.

I drove leaning stiffly forward with a death grip on the top of the steering wheel, my head turned over my left shoulder, my eyes fixed on the place where I hoped to catch a glimpse of yellow. When I caught a flicker of the center line, I knew we were still in our lane. If we drifted to the left across that line, we could be hit head on by something we never saw coming. If we drifted right and off the road, there was no question in my mind that we would be buried alive. I held steady, not even glancing up when something large loomed ahead and swept past in a flurry of white.

Mother had slid down in her seat, her eyes fixed on the white swirling at the windshield, her fists clenched and pushing into the seat on either side. I think she had to unlock her jaw to speak.

“We’ve got to stop. We’ve got to pull over.” She repeated this two or three times.

I kept my head over my shoulder, my eyes down and to the left. “If we stop we’re dead.”

“We have got to get off this road.”

“There’s nowhere to go. We keep moving or we die.”

“Dear God.”

I realized that we were in open country, crossing one of those rolling vistas of the White Mountains that in summertime are spectacular, but that in a blizzard are lethal, as they offer no windbreak for the driving snow. Funny, I remember no sound of the storm in the car.

At some point, I darted a glance at the windshield and saw a thin smudge on the horizon. “Trees. We’re coming to trees. If we can make it to the trees, they’ll act as a buffer. I’ll be able to see the road.”

“Dear God in heaven.”

When we swept into the shelter of the trees, I breathed. Gradually, I leaned back, my spine unbending a vertebra at a time. I began to unlock my fingers from the steering wheel, to twist my neck from side to side.

Mother forced her teeth apart.

“No more adventures, you hear me? Never again.”

I remember little about our one afternoon at the Greer Lodge—only that Mother got into her pajamas and into bed with a book as soon as we got into our room.

It was still morning, and the sun was shining. I was young and dying to get out into the fresh, deep snow, to stand reverently, face and palms lifted, to the crystalline drift from the vibrant green needles of the pines.

“Go,” she said.

For years after, at social gatherings, Mother would say, “Tell about the Apaches and the snow,” and as I told the story, she’d clutch the hair over her forehead, shaking her head, moaning, “Never again. Never again will I go on one of Cynthia’s adventures. I barely survived the last one. Never again.”

In my earliest memory of snow, it is bright in morning sunlight. I am three years old, standing at a window watching bigger kids shouting around outside, throwing snowballs, screaming. I must have stamped my feet and yelled until Mother gave in, because what I remember next is being jerked into a snowsuit.

“You won’t be out there five minutes before you’ll be begging to get back in. Mark my words. Those kids are too big for you, they don’t want you out there and I can promise you you’re going to get hurt.”

I came off my feet as she jerked up the snow pants.

“You’ll come squalling back in no time,” she said, furiously stuffing my arms into the sleeves of a coat and twisting me from side to side as she buttoned it up.

“Mark my words. Five minutes,” She was breathing hard as she worked mittens over my fingers and then lifted and plopped me down on the edge of the couch. She pushed and twisted rubber boots on my feet, then stood me up and jerked a woolen cap down over my ears and eyebrows.

“It’s cold out there and you’re too little to be out in it. Five minutes and you’ll be wanting back in. Mark my words.”

I don’t know how long I lasted. I do remember crying, wanting back in and then lying on my back on the couch as Mother jerked off my boots.

What did I tell you? “ Right boot hits the floor.

What did I say?” Left boot.

Pants next, my body jerking as she yanked them down. “But would you listen? No. We don’t listen to our mother, do we? No.”

She pulls me up, unbuttoning the coat and yanking it down off my arms. Grabs the hem of the wet sweater underneath, yanking my head from side to side as she works it off over my head.

“Insisted on going out. Insisted. And now look at you. Soaking wet. Probably be sick.” She had me in the bathroom, wrapping me in a big towel. “I shouldn’t give in. I know better. Are you going to listen the next time I tell you something? Are you? No.”

Children are sublime in their forbearance.

“Never again. Do you hear me? Never again.”

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