A Space for Writers of the World
The creative word, the word acting in time, the word able to bring events into being, is a mighty powerful word.
Rachel Blau DuPleiss, poet and scholar, on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Pa was born when bulls shed velvet in 1919. He spoke highly of his folks whose names we carry. Cloyd Morgen. Alice Rose. Samuel Jason. Jack Robert. He recited qualities our names engender. A teasing, dancing cadence. At home in the outdoors. Unafraid of hard work and clean fun. Quick to protect and forgive.
When we were bull-headed Pa said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He taught us about the inhumanity of mankind:
As a young man he saw a man cinched to the hood of a Ford and burned. His charred manhood paraded as a reminder to folks in Michigan—a black or brown man is not to find love with a white woman. To bring the story home Pa named the girl he finger-fucked because her folks forbade her from fraternizing with a boy with Indian blood. Decades later she visited. I hugged her and her friend warmly. We went into glacial water to collect river rocks together. They were well into their seventies. Pa still teased about diddling her. She stayed as a guest in my home where a black man also lived. She commented, kindly, times change.
Pa parroted FBI visits, agents who tried—without success—to silence him and his Pa’s talk against WWII. He noted government men weren’t around when it came time to teach modern farming to shattered men returning from overseas.
Pa encouraged us to read the Bible as a parable for living. Called us savages, his lost tribe of Israel. He preached Christianity is a good thing; too bad it’s never been tried. Pa mocked the Methodist Bishop who got after him for holding youth dances and visiting patrons of honky tonks. When Pa left the ministry, a bishop reminded he’d find he couldn’t dance his way into heaven.
Long after he cut a wide swath—before he went ahead—Pa asked Ma to ask congregants gathered to stand and sing a hymn composed by a theological seminary colleague, “Are Ye Able”—said the Master, to be crucified with me? Flagged in our hymnbooks, but not sung in Bethel churches, the hymn ends, Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, To the death I follow Thee.
Afterwards we belted out other favorite odes. “Won’t you come home Bill Bailey” and “Don’t Fence Me In.”
The north wind howled—snow swirled and wiped at our feet—on the mid-December night in 2004 when we gathered together at the rented Bethel Moravian Church to celebrate Pa’s life in words set to verse.
This conscientious objection celebrates Pa who went ahead after his Pa, then his Ma, then Granny, then Anifaq. Before Angii and Aunty Josy.
for Kaijeme Powell
I covet the sensation of icy dark-roasted coffee swirling with heavy cream sliding down my throat. I soak in the scent of Starbucks, evoking as it does awakening to Hills Brothers percolating in early mornings of my girlhood on a windswept tundra.
Last July, Bryan and I took I-25 north into Mud City. We wove through narrow streets in search of a place to park. I held my breath as we wiggled into a spot next to a public library, across from a sushi restaurant. We shook out jingle to feed a meter, finding enough coin to rest a KIA Soul for an hour and twenty-two minutes.
Zig-zagging, we walked through the sun’s gaze, across the shade marking the end of the Santa Fe Trail. On the plaza I asked a sun-browned woman with a severe haircut—dressed casually in branded flowing organic cotton, ethnic approximations dangling from her ears—Where’s Starbucks? She motioned across and down a side street, San Francisco.
We follow her lead. When we arrive the table nearest the cream and sugar station—nearest the front door—sits open. We lay down our bags. I sit against the wall. Bryan glides across the creaky plank hardwood to stand in line to order a vanilla iced coffee and a berry scone. I scan the room and begin to write. My laptop awakens. I type. Across the stained dark floor—against the opposite wall—is a towering sinewy black dude wearing a crisp orangey-yellow snap-up western wear shirt, a perfectly sloping chocolate leather cowboy hat with matching braided hatband, and stiff-creased tan khakis. Leather Jesus sandals protect oiled feet and toenails as he sits hunched over the Santa Fe Monthly. Completing the triad, sitting on the opposite side of a farmhouse style wooden table, a pair of bleached blonde teens sit flitting flowing hair while sucking iced coffee noisily through tall plastic straws.
Customers enter and exit through self-closing double doors: a parade of khakis, jeans, shorts, skirts, bright tops, and flip-flops. Consumers line up to pay. A line forms. Awaiting refreshment, some line up to sit, slowly sip and nibble, watch. Others bolt.
Patrons sit at tiny tables lined up in a single evenly spaced row along a wall. I sit next to the cream and sugar. Bryan sits next to—then across from—me. Next to him, a lone woman types placidly with uneven keystrokes. Then a lone man stabbing a keypad with his pointers. Then duos of downcast girls punching furiously. Curled fingers accompany a driving techno beat overhead, too loud. A snapping snare drum trades syncopation with a tinny trickle of electronic flute. A strange cacophony and cadence. Bustle. Commerce. Thirst. Hunger. Life?
The soundscape shuffles to a moody new age ballad as a willowy teen clicks by in a periwinkle blue jersey maxi-skirt slit to narrow thighs, under a skintight pink and white vertically striped capped tee, an overly made-up face. She teeters from impossible six-inch black strappy Mary Janes, managing a steady metronome’s click, click, click. I resist an impulse to snap my fingers in time.
A parade of flip-flops sip coffee. Bryan sips coffee. The flip-flopped write. I write. Poet b: william writes. Flip-floppers visit. We visit. We are silent. They are silent. They need to pee. Me too. I order iced coffee so a barista will give up a three-digit code to the restroom. Tap up the middle, 8-5-2, she says. I pee too and think I’m not like them.
I am a raw salmon eater. I eat salmon flesh, bellies, skins, heads, hearts, eggs, and tails—fresh, raw, half-dried, dried, smoked, boiled, once in a while fried; rarely barbequed, never fermented. Soon I’ll migrate north and gnaw dried pike dipped in seal oil and chewed soft with seal blubber. Meanwhile, I sip iced coffee.
After another Christmas chili cafeteria buffet dinner by Bon Appetit, the gifts of hearing Simon Ortiz and Joan Naviyuk Kane, I’ll park the Soul atop a dark desert knoll. I’ll step out into the gaze of another starry night and Milky Way Sky River. Join lulling night sounds of those still on our land. Grieve the ones lost for nothing. Give thanks for what brings us together. Forgive to be released from small-minded meanness of those trying to suck her dry, who eat us up they love us so. Meanwhile, I sip iced coffee and write.
A man dyed in black—black baseball cap, sun glasses, hair and beard, polo shirt, warm up pants, Nike sneakers—blasts into Starbucks. The pasty muttering manic man swings a scrunched plastic water bottle half full of jostling milk. Pacing, he swooshes milk. Spits gibberish, echoing fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck at Bryan’s back. The muttering man continues down the line of tables, splattering fart noises with flaccid lips and over-moist tongue.
He returns up the line. Shuffling next to us he replenishes his milk at the cream and sugar station. He drones I’mgoingtostabyouI’mgoingtostabyouI’mgoingtostabyou fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.
The music is muted now. The muttering man is a too-loud backdrop. Flip-flop people ignore their son / brother / father. Teenage flip-floppers stare and gesture, giggle. Others wince and look away. I am ready to pounce if he lunges in and tries to stab Bryan. He doesn’t meet my gaze as I sip iced coffee.
Then, quietly, a barista comes onto the wooden floor. As he approaches, the muttering man quickly veers to take a place in the line of commerce. The barista approaches the line; reaching the man, speaks into his ear. The pair walk together to thick wooden doors, a familiar stepping dance, the muttering man silent if you don’t count his slobbery mouth farts. When they reach the double doors, his muttering resumes and crescendos with music, too loud again. Later we see him pacing loudly across the plaza where people look and hear. No one approaches him, not even me.
As I sip cold corporate coffee in a manufactured shop chilled against high desert heat, I know our coins support a chain extending across taken land. I know we pay costs of commerce and consumption of entertainment and idleness. I know we pay wage of baristas trained to politely escort muttering men to the dignity of a front door.
I am not like them as we walk back to a rental car branded Soul and zig-zag down more narrow winding streets to arrive at a used bookstore where—with dregs of ice coffee sloshing—I dig through stiff plastic milk cartons comprising a free pile outside a train depot mall door. I find The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch, a library edition from the Lee County Pine Island Public Library, hand-stamped with a tiny faux bear paw above a scrolled woman’s signature in thin black ink.
I retrieve The Heartsong of Charging Elk. Bryan stacks Welch with poetry books in a repurposed Trader Joe’s brown paper bag. Later, after pulling Welch from the Soul, I read Sherman Alexie Jr.’s inside cover notes. “…Hey, this may not save your life, but it’s certainly going to give you a fighting chance.”
I think of Ma. Twice a year we travel southeast to Seattle to place wholesale orders for her rural southwestern Alaska retail shop. We take a break to walk to the waterfront and take in a familiar vibe. She claps and sings with soul singers—men with cobbled teeth like ours—as they belt out familiar tunes on the sidewalk outside the original Starbucks. She smiles with them. Meeting their gaze she nods and hands me paper to deliver walking-around money to honor harmonizing voices as men sing. If you take one step, he’ll take two. There ain’t no limit what god can do.
I remind myself it is in a Starbucks across from Walmart that a gaggle of students and faculty met at another mass-ordered wooden farm table. Some of us wore flip-flops. I wear recycled discontinued Keens with rubber nubs to guard against stubbing my big toes. We didn’t sit around a table in a place or on a street where a muttering man—darker than blue, brown, or yellow too—could be quick executed on the spot by law. We sit together leaning into laughter in this madhouse, swallowing iced coffee served by oversized plastic cupfuls.
I’m not home four months when I’m hit with an impulse to leave my manuscript and dance. This is a dance of witness and petition.
A kind-hearted man strides through a staring crowd as H3 began the relief of a slower beat of their second set.
He takes my hand—nodding like it’s nothing new—steers me to flow with strong gentle harmonies. Ukuleles, electric guitar, and keyboards front a steadying pulse of bass and drums.
He touches my back, waist, arms. Kisses my coveted kitchen. His mouth, wet and warm on the nape of my neck. His strong soft tongue swirls to mark hair returning thick, alive. I return his smile as he moves away to smoke.
As he returns, catching his eye, unknown to me, a male—from among a co-ed mob of ear plugs and dyed receding hair—approaches from behind. A specter quick rests clammy lips on the warmth of my cooing neck. Whipping around, I warn him, and them, Back Off. Do Not Touch Me. Back Off.
I continue to dance then return to him, pointing, That shit’s f***ed up. F***ed-up. He lays strong hands on mine and quietly nods—Watch—as the peering pack shifts their gaze, moves to congregate around another brown man who eventually moves away from their circling to sit with a prompting brown sister.
Returning from his next smoke, he is greeted by a lone wolf on a prowl from a seat at the service station. He comes to say he’ll join this stranger. Later I learn they paired tumblers of stiff brown drink. Later I learn the sports fisherman announced f***ed-up intentions. Pointing to a nub-haired brown woman he’s been watching dance, he engaged loose talk of catch and release.
Sisters raise open outstretched hands and pound palms to the downbeat of Peter Tosh. Shake heads to questions repeated across generations: Downpressor man, where you gonna run to?
The pack gathers jewel-toned poly-filled fluff jackets crafted in China and branded as American in this last frontier. Zips up and heads out in lockstep.
The crowd thins. I go to him. Put my hand on his elbow. Speak into his ear. Smiling, I listen to loose talk. Laugh and call him lovey through his offers to kiss my sister’s feet, marry another. I pocket an offered calling card and shoo away the male who objected nervously with feigned surprise.
I walk with him out a front double door. When he tucks into a sister bar next door, I hug my Zuni sister, follow him inside and stand sentinel as he orders a drink and lays down a two dollar tip. I listen—with a dapper East Indian pausing from a leisurely game of pool—as he loudly outlines the autonomy and strength of a black man. At last call, he quietly orders a beer. Nodding, he instructs, don’t ever let them deny you. Order. Pay. Leave the drink.
After making it through another set of double glass doors, he casts a now-empty pack of Marlboros to an icy sidewalk. I smile quietly and retrieve the cowboy box, smash it before dropping the stink into an overflowing downtown garbage pail.
We move past a multi-story pioneering spirit mural hidden in full view in a backlot. He quiets as I lead him to a sedan parked in front of city hall—kiddy corner to an All Saints Episcopal Church where I once joined a line of citizens showing respect for Ted Stevens in repose—down from a brick facade funeral home, evergreen in service to death alone in the city.
On our journey home—descending to cross manmade Westchester Lagoon after the downslope of a Robert Moses-type divided highway renamed Hickel Parkway—he announces the declaration of the male who invited him to sit at the service station.
Sam asks, How does it feel to be an object of lust?
I continue my steer, echoing years of conversation.
It’s nothing new. Just because a European male’s menu of desire is posed for immediate delivery does not make it so.
I remind: it’s not real.
Note the phony arrogant bravado of a limited male.
Faux aggression is towards both me and him as a man—and the land too. A tricky illusion.
I am not juicy dark meat. Sam is not a reduced BBC.
Bragging, the skinny, ashen, too talky dude forgot his wife and daughters awaiting his return.
Sam slurs, The indigenous are f***ed.
I disagree. Firmly. Gently. Quietly. Repeatedly.
I affirm love of self, him, and continuance in our homeland.
Soon we are the quiet of a nest, snuggling, as a grandmother is run over across Hickel Parkway on C Street near Fireweed.
The next day, at a bar squatted on Fireweed just off C, red-faced drinkers stumble out solo, in pairs, trios, before driving away in dented vehicles into the glare of another waning midafternoon sun.
I read posts to the Alaska Dispatch News.
How is it murder when a drunk woman walks into a street and gets hit by a car. I’ve hit more street drunks in my car than moose? those signs on the side of the road that say give moose a break, should read “look out for a small drunk person with Listerine. (sic)
Sam says he doesn’t know what to say.
Daniel Hirschberg denies he typed about natives. Calls a male who calls him out a racist. Gives his employer’s number. Guarantees his supervisor will side with him. Posts are flagged then removed. Erased.
I remind: it’s not about us.
We keep understanding as we venture to and from downtown Anchorage to celebrate gifts of life and togetherness.
I say, yet again, Rest in Peace—this time to Venise Gunlik—and the f***ed who use mouths for no good. And I keep walking.
I walk in a city officially excused from over-reaching EPA clean water regulations. Sewage and gray water are dumped into the inlet renamed for Captain Cook. My ears hear the spit Tundra Nigger. I raise my eyes to meet a young boy’s gaze. He says, You Tundra Nigger. Go back to where you come from. This place is ours now.
I say this place cannot host your mistakes and continue my walk in downtown Anchorage.
Alice Rose Crow~Maar’aq is born and raised on the Kusquqvak in southwest Alaska and nests in Spenard. Her work appears in the Brevity blog, Plume, Hinchas de Poesia, Camas, Yellow Medicine Review, River, Blood and Corn, Retort, Frontiers, and Standards. Her book-length collection, An Offering of Words, is under review. An Island Institute Fellow, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indi(genous)an Arts. She is a member of the Orutsararmiut Native Council and is an original Calista and Bethel Native Corporation shareholder.