Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
“My Good Man”—that was what she called him. Good for what? was what most people asked, but all my ma would do was smile. He hung around a lot the spring and summer I was seven, and since he was strong enough to bring in a full kerosene can, she let him stay on through the winter. After a while, she willed the whole reservation to forget his real name. Everyone started calling him MGM, which eventually evolved into Gihh-rhaggs, the Tuscarora word for lion. He said it was because of his fierce growl, thick beard, and full head of hair. He never knew the fluidity of our language, since he didn’t speak it at all—that we might say “lion” when we meant “lyin’.”
My ma was off cleaning houses for white women in the rich village below the reservation five days out of seven and spent most Saturday nights serving guests at cocktail parties for those same women. This worked out because sometimes she could get a wine spill from a rug at the actual party and it wouldn’t have had time to set before she came back to clean on Monday or Tuesday. My auntie Rolanda would come over at six o’clock every Saturday night, carrying both of their little black dresses with the white collars on one hanger. That was their deal. My ma would drive and my auntie would make sure their outfits were clean.
I would stand on a dining-room chair and zip them both up after they’d gotten dressed in my ma’s bedroom, the backs of their white collars closing on my fingers like huge flower petals. The last thing my ma would do was take her teeth out and brush them in a dish of water and toothpaste. I wanted mine pulled to have those perfect removable teeth like she had.
Gihh-rhaggs generally stayed out of the way while my auntie was there. She would ask in the voice she’d used before my deaf grandfather died when my ma was going to find a man who would at least help with the bills. My ma would answer back as loudly that he did what he could and that she didn’t see any men knocking on my auntie’s door. She said he got me up and off for school. That was true enough, but I was never sure my ma knew the whole story about him doing what he could, not that I knew either for sure.
I don’t remember exactly when Gihh-rhaggs took over waking me. My ma was already scrubbing the shit from someone else’s toilet long before I had to be up, so she figured since Gihh-rhaggs was there anyway, he could get me to the bus on time. I imagined he thought it was a clever way to disguise the fact that he was spending nearly every night at our home and by the next year, he was as much a part of our lives as the coffee cans we put out around the house to catch the leaks when it rained. He would come into my room and do trampoline knee-drops on the foot of the bed until I woke up. It was like waking to an earthquake five mornings a week. Each night I was determined to wake myself the next morning before he got there, trying to train my ears to hear him enter the room or to sense him when he leapt into the air. I wasn’t picky. I just didn’t want to wake up in the air for the rest of my school career.
The first morning, he made coffee as I dressed and fought brushing my teeth. “You wanna keep those teeth as long as you can, junior. You never know when you’re gonna need them.” He offered me a sip from his cup, and that was enough coffee for me. “Good thing,” he said. “It’s a bad habit, and there’ll be plenty of those to choose from once you get old enough. You’ll like this better,” he said, pouring hot chocolate from the stove. He must have made it before jumping on the bed. “Your old man ever come around?” he asked. I shook my head. I had been what they politely call a later-life baby, a gift, a surprise, or, more unkindly, a mistake baby. My dad had not wanted kids at all, said he had a hard enough time feeding two mouths and still having any money left over for anything fun, and he was sure my ma had gotten pregnant just to spite him. He’d been looking for an excuse to fly for years, from what I’d heard, and I was just the one he needed.
I hadn’t seen my dad since before I had started school, and even then, it had always been at a distance, from some far end of a crowd at different reservation events: community fair, National Picnic, Christmas bazaar. I got to recognize his legs from afar because if he ever saw me coming, he would do a quick disappearing act back into the crowd. The year before at the National Picnic, I had actually gotten within eight feet of him for several hours and he never even caught on, and then I walked away when it got close to time for Fireball. It was not like if I snuck up on him I could capture him and suddenly he would want to be my dad again.
Gihh-rhaggs nodded and said it was time for the bus. He walked up the driveway with me, and when the bus came Bonnie opened the door. She didn’t look at me but stared out at Gihh-rhaggs instead. Lots of out-of-work reservation men waited with their kids in the morning to catch a glimpse of Bonnie in those outfits she wore. I didn’t know then what impressed men about tight-fitting tank tops, but some of the older kids were kind enough to inform me. She had a smile for every one of those men too. Gihh-rhaggs looked back at her as she shut the door and got moving again. She watched him in the rearview mirror and he watched her and I watched the two of them until he disappeared around the bend.
He waited with me every morning even as it grew warmer and there was less of a worry about me getting cold or frostbitten or whatever it was he thought he was preventing by being there. But Gihh-rhaggs never waited for me in the afternoons, when Dave drove us home.
“How long you had that driver?” Gihh-rhaggs asked one morning.
“Dave?” I asked, knowing that was not who he meant.
“The other one.”
“Since I’ve been on the bus, pretty much,” I said, which was true. There might have been some others at first, but their faces rapidly faded. It seemed Bonnie had forever been our driver. Everyone liked her, not just the employment-challenged. Even the bad kids behaved for her, or at least in front of her. Down the road a bit, some kids had a retarded uncle their ma took care of who waited with them, and he had struck up a waving relationship with Bonnie, and after a while they would say hi back and forth, and she gave him cigarettes sometimes when the mood struck her right. The kids told me their uncle believed he and Bonnie were dating, and they found this way too funny to inform him any different. They said sometimes they would call him from someone else’s house if they knew he was home alone and pretend to be Bonnie. I was glad they lived too far away to want to consider me a friend.
I was beginning to think, though, as Bonnie and Gihh-rhaggs became more friendly, waving, saying hi, watching each other in the mirror, that there might be some real phone calls coming to our number. I wondered if that bus ever made a stop at my house while my ma and I were out for the day. Bonnie grew nicer and nicer to me the more she and Gihh-rhaggs became bolder, sometimes giving me a candy bar the way she passed cigarettes to the retarded uncle. It was possible, as I didn’t know what Gihh-rhaggs did during the day, or even if he had a job or not, but he seemed to never be without money and as soon as my ma and auntie left in their black dresses every Saturday night, he and I were out the door ourselves in his junker car. He maintained to my ma that it never got out of second gear, so they took her car whenever they went anywhere together, but it had no trouble getting where he wanted to be whenever he and I headed out past dark.
The first place we usually hit was the Golden Pheasant, where all the women petted on me, buying me Cokes and potato chips and putting me up high on a barstool to watch the pool games without getting in the way, while he went into the back room and claimed to be playing cards. Sometimes one of the guys would bring my barstool over and teach me how to shoot with the balls remaining after someone had sunk the eight. I suspected Bonnie might be in that back room, and though this bothered me, Gihh-rhaggs was one of the few happinesses in my ma’s hard life, so I decided I would only mention Bonnie to her if I knew for sure that something was up. Later we would go to a few other places in the city but at those places, I mostly sat in the car. He would stop along the way somewhere and pick up a few burgers for me and he would finish off whatever I didn’t eat as we made our way back to the reservation.
“Why you wanna live with us, anyway?” I asked one Saturday night as we passed the bullet-pocked sign that indicated the reservation border.
“You don’t want me to live with you?” I think it was the first time an adult had ever asked for my opinion and meant it.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I guess it’s all right. You don’t spill the kerosene. But you’re white,” I added, as if this fact were not obvious. When my ma went for a white man, she went all out. He was about as blond and blue-eyed as they make them. Even his beard was blond and not that red-brown you see so many blond guys with. As summer came on, his skin was burning or peeling, white or red; he never browned. “We have to live here. You don’t. You could go anywhere, maybe live in those houses like the people on TV.” I had been to some of the houses my ma cleaned and they did live luxurious lives, had toilets and sinks and their houses were not wired with extension cords from the one set of outlets near the box. “Wouldn’t that be great?”
“You could go anywhere, too. Your mom is the one who won’t leave. I tried to get her to move and finally just gave up and came to live with her since she wouldn’t come to live with me.” I didn’t buy it. I might have been seven, but I had already learned to add.
“Well where’d you live? Where’d you want her to move to?”
“Around,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. The point is, she wouldn’t come because of you. She said she wanted you to grow up on the reservation, learn the language, all that shit. Are you learning it in school?” I nodded. “Does that name everyone calls me really mean lion?” I considered lying myself, but then confessed that it did. “Hah, I knew it,” he said, running his fingers through his beard. “They all wish they could have this.”
“Maybe on their belts,” I said. His face remained nearly still, but he frowned a little, just for a few seconds. I guess he probably didn’t like my comment, but it was going to take more than a few hamburgers to win me over, even if I was learning to shoot pool long before I could ever reach the table proper. He won some points though late in August and I never made scalping jokes after that.
Gihh-rhaggs let me climb all over his car, to treat it as if it were mine. He even told me I could have it when I got old enough to drive, so I had better be nice to it in preparation. A lot of other kids from down the road would come over if they saw his car parked under the walnut tree. He was my exotic pet. Most of them had never seen a white man that close before, and certainly not one as white as Gihh-rhaggs. Some of them asked if his pecker was as white as the rest of him. I told them I hadn’t the foggiest. If he came outside while we were playing, they would stare into his blue eyes and he would smile, drinking a beer, and ask them what they were looking at, and that was usually all it took for them to retreat back to playing with me on his car.
One of those days we discovered we could reach a thick branch of the walnut tree from the car’s roof and then hanging on, could swing out across the hood and down to the ground, just like using a Bat-rope. After a couple of hours the older kids said they didn’t want to swing anymore and I thought, more turns for me. But they knew what I didn’t. About five trips across the hood later the thick branch cracked, a loud and painful moan, like the noise a kid’s body makes against the road after going over a bike’s handlebars.
Suddenly everyone was calling me “tree-killer” in as loud voices as they could muster. They wanted to make sure everyone knew I had done the damage before they went home to their own yards full of in-tact trees
Even though our house was nearly in the woods, surrounded by trees, my ma especially loved the black walnut growing outside the kitchen window. She collected the nuts every fall, and though they stained her fingers black and the shells were tough as rocks, she cracked them and harvested every nut she could find. I tried lifting the branch and leaning it on the others so she wouldn’t know, but that night I lay in bed and thought about killing the tree. That last swing had been a pretty serious act. That act might get me a name for the rest of my life, and though Gihh-rhaggs was a dreadful enough one for my ma’s old man, I most certainly did not want to go through life being named Tree-Killer. I had hoped for a much better reservation name and I had been getting to about the age where one would come up on me unexpected, some unforeseeable life event changing my name forever. There was a woman named Buffalo-Head just because she happened to watch some movie with buffaloes in it with a bunch of other people who noticed right then that her head was bigger than it should have been for her body. This move could be bad.
Worse than the name, though, was the idea that I had killed something, and the fact would not leave me no matter what I tried to think about. I knew little of the ways of trees, but I knew that even as I lay in bed, leaves were beginning to fall and I would have to go out and face the corpse every day for the rest of my life, watching it grow gray, wither, eventually fall into decay, depriving my ma of her walnut harvest. There were things I already regretted at the age of seven, but up to then, those lapses in judgment had been retrievable, erased or at least held at bay by an apology and an expectation that there would be a payback at some point. The vengeance of schoolchildren is not monumental, but it is exact, and I had already understood that fact. But for this action no one was going to kick me in the nuts when adults weren’t looking, no one was going to shove my head in the toilet at school until I could not breathe and then finally flush it at the last possible moment. No one would go to the trouble of pinching my jaws open and spitting down my throat, and no one was going to stuff sulfur powder up my nostril over this singular death. None of those kids who watched me kill it cared about the tree at all; they just wanted to distance themselves from the blame.
The next morning, I wasn’t hungry. My ma was already waxing someone’s kitchen floor and Gihh-rhaggs was taking his responsibility of getting my breakfast seriously. He offered a number of things—cereal, eggs, pancakes—most of which we did not actually have in the house, but he was willing to go buy them. I refused even more stridently. I didn’t want him to go outside and see the tree’s corpse. He would know for sure that I had done it. At that moment, though, I realized he would inevitably use his car.
“I need to show you something,” I said.
“I knew something was up. What is it? Are you sick? Something happen? Did you shit the bed or something?” I shook my head and took his hand, dragged him outside and confessed to the murder. He frowned, looked up, saw the branch and pulled it down. He was a tall man and it was an easy reach for him.
“I killed that tree. It was an accident, but I murdered it by not thinking about it. Jonesie said so. He said everyone would remember what I had done for the rest of my life.”
“It’s not dead. See? Look here.” He lifted me up on his shoulders and showed me where the break was. I didn’t want to see it but he grabbed my hand and laid my fingers on the wet pulp. “It’s still alive. This happens to everything. It’ll heal over. You watch. You gotta quit worrying about this shit. This is like all that craziness you had with the tornados earlier this summer.”
“Well, they said on the TV,” I started. I had become aware of the Emergency Broadcast System a few months before and any time they did their tests on the television I ran into the room and stared at the Civil Defense image on the screen while the warning tone filled my ears. Our house was over a hundred years old, had belonged to my grandparents before my ma, and it had no basement, not even a dirt cellar. You could look between the cracks in the dining-room floor planks and see the dark and wet earth beneath. I had tried to negotiate with friends who had basements, to see what I could give them in trade for room among the canned vegetables and their dads’ dirty magazines hidden in that box under the stairs in event of an emergency. I had secured reasonable assurances for my ma and me, but none of them wanted a white man in their cellars, and particularly not one as white as Gihh-rhaggs was, even though he had been with us for over a year by then.
“I know what they said on TV, but I’ve lived here my whole life and I haven’t seen one tornado. It might happen, I suppose, but this tree will probably outlive you. Your kids’ll be picking the nuts off the ground. It’s strong. Everything that’s meant to survive does, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now let’s get rid of this branch and get you some breakfast, okay?”
Sometime maybe a month later, things changed forever, and the Emergency Broadcast System alarm had never even sounded. It was the late autumn by then, and the leaves had already fallen from the trees. Gih-rhaggs had been right. The tree had scarred over and otherwise seemed as healthy as it ever had. My ma never noticed the gray stump on the walnut, but I saw it every time I walked by. I took to coming and going from the front door. It was getting colder in the mornings so Gih-rhaggs would lay my clothes for the day on top of the kerosene heater. All I had to do was run down there to the big room and get into my warm clothes.
The first thing I noticed that morning was that I had awakened by myself. I had finally trained myself to wake up before Gih-rhaggs came up to jump on the bed. I waited and waited, but he never came. I eventually got up and looked down the staircase. There were no clothes on the heater. I grabbed a set from my dresser and got dressed, heading downstairs to see if the country had experienced a nuclear attack and I had slept through the duck-and-cover drill the one time it had really counted.
My ma was sitting at the table just out of sight, but as I got close, I saw her body rocking forward, her hand gripping her forehead. I thought she was laughing at something she’d just heard on the radio. I touched her and asked her what it was. She looked up, not laughing at all, and was, of course, crying. I hadn’t recognized it because I had never seen her cry. In all the times she’d come home from working those parties with her feet looking like loaves of bread they were so swollen, she never once complained. I asked her one time why she was so quiet over something that hurt and she said complaining didn’t do any good, so why waste the energy.
“My Good Man is gone,” she said, and I immediately thought of Bonnie. I pictured her pulling up in her bus earlier than anyone expected, so none of the kids caught it, until her empty bus slowed to our driveway and Gihh-rhaggs grabbed onto a grocery bag of clothes he kept in my ma’s dresser and stepped onto the striped stairs behind the wheel well, allowing those folding doors to close on our life. She probably put the bus in motion even before he stepped beyond the white caution line. Those two were so sneaky.
“I bet I know where to find him,” I said, picturing the large garage and fenced in parking lot just at the edge of the reservation where all the school busses rested when they weren’t being used.
“He’s dead,” she said, straight out, like she had read me a headline from a newspaper. “That stupid car of his. Exhaust fumes, they think. He was on his way home from the track, had this in his pocket. Hit a telephone pole.” She pointed to the counter where we kept the sugar, salt, anything she might have used as a seasoning, and the big bucket of well water we drank from. “His daughter dropped it off this morning. She said he was probably intending it for us.”
“How much is it?” I asked. I had never seen so much cash in my life. Our dollar bills had been precious few and we kept them orderly, like those little cards you sometimes see in the mirrors at the houses of the more Catholic Indians on the reservation. I had never seen most of these bills before and read off the names of the men—Jackson, Hamilton, Grant, Franklin—faces I had only ever seen before on the classroom walls. It was easier to concentrate on these faces of grim white men than to think that Gihh-rhaggs’ goofy bearded face was gone for good.
I put my coat on and walked out the kitchen door. His car wasn’t underneath the tree. I wanted to go back in and tell her about Gihh-rhaggs and Bonnie, then maybe she would stop crying. I knew it would not be right to say all the crying in the world wouldn’t bring him back, but I wanted her to stop.
I got ready for school on my own and told her I was going. She just sat there, staring out across our lawn. I bet she knew Bonnie would be showing up, ready to get her morning flirt in, and I was going to help her out and be just the person to set things straight. I went out and waited in the cold, trying to not think about the fact that Gihh-rhaggs was gone, and trying to remember how I was going to tell Bonnie off, even if it got me kicked off the bus for good.
When the bus arrived and the door opened, Dave greeted me instead. I asked him where Bonnie was, and he said she had called in that morning. I stood at the caution line and asked as casually as an eight-year-old can if he knew why.
“I don’t know for sure, but someone at the garage said her dad had died during the night. They weren’t close, but a person’s dad is a person’s dad, right, kiddo?” Dave looked up at me and smiled.
“I guess,” I said. I started to ask him if he knew what Bonnie’s last name was, but then I realized it wouldn’t matter. I had no idea what Gihh-rhaggs’ last name had been myself. It had never occurred to me that he’d ever had any other life but the one with us, any other life where he’d needed a different name than the ones he’d had with us.
Gihh-rhaggs had been wrong, I thought, or lying after all when he said this was the natural order of things, that things just died sometimes, that things would heal over. All that shit. There wasn’t a natural thing about that morning.
Eric Gansworth was born and raised at the Tuscarora Indian Nation in Western New York. He is an associate professor of English and the Lowery Writer in Residence at Canisius College, in Buffalo.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.