Saturday, March 12, 2011

Magic City Blues

A cold wind was gusting up the street and gathering scattered Billings refuse, whipping between the buildings with a sibilant fury. It was the kind of cold you feel in your lungs, the kind that hurts to touch directly. The kind that gangrene will take, if you let it.

The old Crow Indian was staring unblinkingly into the gusts and the trash which they carried. Scarred face and ratted old gray hair worn by and callused to the brutality in that air, air which settled like a glaucoma in the shivering bodies outside McCormick's Cafe. With curved and mangled fingers the old Indian shakily lit a cigarette and huffed in, then spoke without introduction.

My greatgrandfather was a chief on the Crow reservation, he said, nodding. Yes mhmm. He was there on through 1910.

When he spoke his words sounded ancient and seemed to age him older still. His eyes were pale razors, blue and sharp and exacting, focusing for a few moments on each of us in an almost rote fashion. They were not so much accusatory as guilting, as if in an effort to invoke some truth that in a just world should have been self evident and which he was disappointed he had to explain.

See that rock over there, he nodded his head to the formation jutting out from the Rimrocks which girded the city. That is called Suicide Rock. When the Europeans came and gave the Crow smallpox, they would leap from that rock to their deaths, rather than suffer out their disease.

While he spoke the old shopkeep had come out from McCormick's and stood with balded head and frowning face at the fringe of the group. Something in the Crow's tone or his confrontational disposition was an affront to the shopkeep and perhaps even to the group. Heads turned away from the emotion of his words and the gravity of their implication. Some kind of fear lurks above any sentiment too real; this Crow was no exception.

Javier, the shopkeep said curtly, Vamonos. Que no son bienvenidos. You know you can't be here.

Yeah yeah, Javier grumbled, and turned stiffly away. He waved one of his mangled claws broadly at the group watching before turning and limping away down the road.

Sorry about Javier, said the shopkeep. I've caught him dealing meth on this very doorstep. He always comes when he sees new faces.

It's alright, I said quickly.

We left in the opposite direction. The freezing wind gusted up the long industrial Billings streets, seeming to push out or to freeze out whatever it encountered, succeeding only in veneering everything with a crisp iciness, the sort of iciness that could slice flesh to the bone when the thermometer read (as it did on that morning) negative ten. As we walked back to the trucks I looked up to the Rimrocks and pictured the diseased Indians pitching off the edge in endless droves, killed as much by the killing virus as by the piles of bodies that lured and beckoned with promises of an oblivion that knew no Lewis and knew no Clark, a vacuum unimbued by settlers or settler thoughts, a sanctuary of nothingness from the heretical debauchery which swept through land and man alike. And for a moment through the bitter grayness it was as though something wraithlike in the ancient bluffs seemed to demand justice, as clearly as that grizzled and drugtorn shadow of a man spending the coin of his lifeforces lurking about coffee shops and alleyways. A gust of wind shivered down the trashblown streets again and I huddled my shoulders into that wicked air. It is times like these that I am glad to have left my jacket at home.

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