When Grandpa started coughing on the porch after lunch, I remembered the mullein I had gathered at Agua Bonita two days earlier. Mom jumped up to bring him his pipe and tobacco bag, and Will handed him the match box.
“I’m out of big tobacco,”15 Grandpa explained, heaving for a breath.
“I got you some big tobacco yesterday, Grandpa . . . but I forgot about it! Here it is. And some horehound too. It’s good for your lungs.”
The backpack was still sitting on the porch where Will had dropped it yesterday afternoon. I had taken all the food and dishes out but the bags of herbs was still in the front pocket.
Grandpa smoothed the young mullein leaves flat on his thigh and nodded approvingly.
“Young leaves. Very good. They might be ready by late afternoon.” Grandpa likes his big tobacco not quite dry, he says it makes a better smoke.
“Do you have the other herbs you need, Grandpa?” my mom asked, shifting Anna who had fallen asleep in her lap.
“Everything but osha root. I can use peppermint instead. I just like the osha flavor better.”
“Well, osha is good for your lungs too. I think I’m out as well. But today is flea market day . . . Will could run to town and see if anyone is selling osha root.”
Mom looked over at us. We were all (except for Dad who had gone back to his office) lounging in various places on the porch. Susanna and I were in the big hammock. Jake had claimed the other. Will lay stretched out on the bench and Daniel had draped himself over the railing, with his back against a pole. Jake sat up in excitement and his hair was standing on end. He needed a haircut.
“Hey! That’s a great idea! Can us kids go with him?”
“Us kids?” Daniel echoed, grinning.
“I mean, us guys.”
“And girls!” Susanna exclaimed.
“Well, I guess,” Mom nodded. “Is everything done? Can you be back in time for chores?”
Will stood up and walked to the edge of the porch, stretching as he looked toward the West.
“Yeah. We’ve got a good four hours. We should be back in three.”
Grandpa leaned forward and pulled a worn-out leather wallet out of his pocket. He handed Will a hundred dollar bill.
“Spend it all,” he said.
“Do you need anything, Mom?” Will asked.
“Get us some red chile for sausage,” Mom said. “That’s all. Have a good time.”
I hurried to my room to put on my Navajo jewelry. I rarely wear it at home because we’re always busy working, but Grandpa has engrained in me the importance of wearing my jewelry whenever I go to town. He says it means that I have self-respect and am not lazy.
“Nizhoni,” he says when he sees me wearing my jewelry. Nizhoni is the Navajo word for beautiful and it is my middle name, given to me by Grandpa.
I had my silver and turquoise necklace on and one earring in when the truck horn started honking. It must be Jake. Will wouldn’t honk. So I didn’t hurry. I put in the second turquoise earring, a matching bracelet, gave my hair a quick brush and surveyed myself in the mirror before walking out the door. Long black hair, slanted eyes in a suntanned face, faded red T-shirt and jeans, ranch boots, straw cowboy hat and my grandmother’s jewelry. Anywhere else it might look odd, but in New Mexico, I am nizhoni.
Leaving the mountains, the landscape gets dryer and rockier until finally, once you reach town, there isn’t much green left at all. Stretched out on a dusty flat area a half mile long is the Navajo Flea Market. Beyond are red rock bluffs behind dusty brown hills, dotted with sagebrush and the occasional piñon tree.
On one side of the road, Mexican and Anglo truck drivers were parked selling semi-truck loads of hay from Colorado. They all looked rangy and muscular, with wrinkled and dusty faces under the broad-brimmed cowboy hats.
Among the truck loads of hay, there was an occasional stock trailer with a half-dozen horses lined up and tied to the outside of the trailer. They shifted lazily in the sun, tails working constantly to flick away the flies.
A small corral held a flock of sheep and leaning against the railing was a diminutive figure in a long, full skirt. Tied around her head was a colorful bandana. Sh’ma (a Navajo grandmother) was selling some of her flock.
On the other side of the road lies the real flea market area. Long rows of mismatched booths and tents side by side wait for the flow of customers to bring an occasional sale.
As we drove along slowly looking for a parking spot on the side of the road, I spotted a little cart hitched to a miniature pony. A small boy was driving the cart. He sat proudly on the seat with a crop in one hand and the reins in the other. His dad stood in the background, watching him and talking animatedly to a customer. The father and his boy were dressed just alike. Both were wearing jeans and boots, black cowboy shirts and white hats. Both had big, silver belt buckles.
“This is so cool!” Daniel exclaimed, leaning forward to gaze out of the window. “It’s like going back in time. Look at all the cowboys!”
“Look at all the Indians!” Jake added, mimicking Daniel’s tone. In this town, most of the cowboys are Indians.
Will parked the truck and we all got out. Daniel was the only one not wearing a hat. Grandpa says you can’t go out in the New Mexico sun without a hat any sooner than you can go out without your pants.
“I guess I need a hat,” Daniel confessed, squinting around at all of us. Will reached into the back seat of the truck and pulled out an old feed store bill-cap and handed it to Daniel, who turned it over in his hands, grimacing. He slowly pulled it down over his black curls and grinned ruefully at me.
“You look fine,” I said, laughing.
“You look pretty fine yourself,” Daniel replied in a low voice that only I could hear as we turned to follow Will through the parked cars and people. I pretended not to hear him either and pulled my hat down over my eyes so he couldn’t see I was smiling.
We found the osha root on the first aisle, sold by a Navajo man who had dug up the roots in Colorado, where osha is often found. He looked at us curiously as we bought all that he had there. I asked him if he had any un-torn roots because I wanted to try to plant some on our farm. (All the osha I had ever seen for sale had been torn open to let the wonderful fragrance of the root attract customers.) He didn’t have any un-torn roots and told me it would not grow in New Mexico. He didn’t know that we live in the mountains too. I think osha could grow on our farm if I could just get a good transplant.
Jake called us over to a familiar stand run by a Mexican man who sells Blue Sky sodas. He took them out of an ice-filled cooler and handed us each one. I always get root beer, but the boys chose lemon-lime They were icy-cold and perfect.
“Hey, aren’t these unhealthy for you?” Daniel asked Will.
“Not as unhealthy as other pop drinks,” Will said. “So far, these are still made with real cane sugar, not the regular sugar that comes from beets or corn syrup.”
“What’s wrong with beet sugar?” Daniel asked.
“Sugar beets are GM,” Jake pre-empted Will.
“Damn!” Daniel said, grinning despite the bad news. He looked like he was having a good time.
We all had a little money from selling the extra milk and eggs to neighbors, and Will had plenty because he’d been selling more and more of his handmade furniture lately. But he was trying to save up for building a house someday. We spent Grandpa’s money on the osha, chile, lunch and fuel for the truck.
I started drifting toward a table stacked with notebooks and office supply stuff, hoping to get myself another journal and a good pen.
“Hey, there’s some fresh looking chile ristras,” Will announced, and took off in the other direction.
“Will, can I meet you there in five minutes? I want to get a notebook.” He looked over his shoulder and nodded at me, so I headed over to the office supply table. Daniel stood undecidedly between us, and then hesitantly turned to follow Will.
As I walked through the crowd, I noticed a nice-looking guy at a T-shirt table watching me hopefully. I glanced away from him, trying not to smile and met eyes with yet another teenage guy staring at me. He was with a friend and they were both obviously checking me out.
Sheesh, I must look pretty good today, I thought to myself, giggling nervously as I finally reached the notebooks. I bent over them, thumbing through the paper and looking for a price tag somewhere.
“Can I help you?” said a voice and I looked up to see a middle-aged white guy with an extra-large belly hanging over his belt.
“Well, you’re a cutie!” he exclaimed quietly, taking a cheap cigarette out of his mouth to smile at me.
Surely not!” I thought to myself, He’s old and fat . . . he’d never!— But the fat guy leaned over the table and put his cold, white hand on top of mine and spoke in a low voice.
“Darlin’, you just tell me what you want and I’ll make sure you get it.”
A rush of fear poured over me and I stepped backward in alarm and bumped right into someone. It was Daniel. He draped his arm over my shoulders and said in a friendly voice, “Hey, did you find anything interesting?”
I looked at him in surprise and relief, and saw that he was staring menacingly at the man behind the table. My confidence returned and I glared at the man as well.
“No. Nothing interesting at all.”
“Yeah. Looks like trash to me. Let’s go,” Daniel said, and turned me around and walked me into the crowd.
“You come back anytime, sweetheart,” I heard the horrible man say as we walked away.
As soon as the crowd closed around us I stopped and stepped away from Daniel.
“Thanks. I think,” I said—less graciously than I should have.
I suddenly felt crowded and taken advantage of from every angle. Daniel was looking at me with a lazy smile on his face. He was in his natural element and I was out of mine. I felt like he could see right through me and was amused at my lack of poise.
“Be my girlfriend,” he said, unexpectedly.
“Because you’re too gorgeous to walk around without a boyfriend,” he grinned and his eyes flickered away to scan the crowd and pinpoint onlookers. He looked at me again and added quietly, “And because I like you. Don’t you like me?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had enjoyed Daniel’s attention but now he wanted a commitment from me that I didn’t want to give.
I’m just fourteen, I thought. I’m not ready for this. I don’t need a boyfriend right now. . . I just want to be Will’s sister and Dad’s little girl for a while longer. . .
“I—I—I don’t know. . .” I stuttered, “I can’t.”
Daniel looked at me piercingly as though he were trying to read my mind. He shook his head unbelievingly, and then said, “It’s your dad. He wouldn’t like it.”
I shook my head, miserable because I couldn’t find the words to explain. But Daniel deserved a better answer.
“I just don’t see why,” I said. “I don’t need a boyfriend. I like my life the way it is right now. It’s nothing personal. I do like you. But I like my life without a boyfriend better.”
Daniel’s face grew impassive, the way it does sometimes. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He stepped away from me and looked around like he was lost. I stared at the ground. Crap.
“I get it,” he said suddenly, “I’m moving too fast.” When I looked up, his old grin was back. I had no idea what he was thinking but I was glad he wasn’t mad at me.
We joined the others at the ristra table and Will handed each of the boys a fresh string of chiles to carry. The ristras were about three feet long and made with about a hundred chiles, sewn together with stout string. The strong hot odor made us all sneeze a few times.
Will bought a drawknife for himself and a machete for Dad. Jake got himself a bigger water canon. Susanna and I each bought a pair of earrings and a pair for Mom as well. Sue’s were tiny beaded moccasins and mine were beaded Indian corn in leather shucks. Mom’s were turquoise bead hoops. We found a tiny purse and filled it with peanuts for Anna. Daniel’s purchase puzzled me. He got a book titled Art and Design in Photoshop.
It started to rain and it looked like it might last a while. We were soon back in the truck and headed home again. Susanna and I were in the back this time and within ten minutes, she was fast asleep. Daniel sat against the passenger door, across from me. He never once glanced at me and I was a little unhappy, feeling the loss of his attention.
It’s myself that I like, I thought grimly. I am so full of myself, I make myself sick.
Jake talked for a while about water canons, how they should be made to hold more water and how he was going to stage a water fight later. When he was finally quiet, Daniel spoke up, addressing his question toward Will.
“Hey man, tell me why you guys don’t have girlfriends. Are you going to date or get married or what?”
We were all silent, waiting for Will’s reply. Sometimes the things you know—you don’t really know. You just feel them. And when someone asks you why, you have to find the words and even the thoughts, to describe what you feel. Daniel waited patiently and Will finally nodded and looked at him.
“Okay. First tell me your supposition. Why have a girlfriend?”
“What do you mean? Don’t you want a girlfriend?” Daniel asked, incredulously.
“Yeah. Of course. But spell it out for me. What are the reasons for having a girlfriend?”
Daniel was silent and he appeared to grow uncomfortable. He squirmed in his seat. I wondered what he was thinking.
“To have someone,” he said finally. “To not be lonely. To—to have sex. But not just that!”
I put my face down into my hands, more than a little embarrassed. But Will just nodded as if that was the obvious answer.
“Okay. But what about for the girl? Why should she have a boyfriend?”
“For the same reasons, I guess. And to have someone to take care of her, because if she’s cute, guys are always going to be hitting on her.”
Will nodded again.
“So, I agree with that. And I don’t know about you but I want a girl that will stay with me long term. Like, forever, if possible. I want a girl that can go the direction I’m going and has similar ideas and dreams so we can work together and be together in life itself—not just in bed. Would you say that’s what you want too?”
I was amazed at Will’s transparency. I’d never heard him say these things before. I wished I could memorize his words so I could go over them later.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Daniel’s laugh sounded hollow. “But where are you going to find that? I mean, that’s like a movie or something. It doesn’t happen to everybody.”
“Mom and Dad have it,” Will asserted quietly. “And I believe there’s a girl out there somewhere that wants what I just described and is looking for it too.”
“Sure. Yeah. But how are you going to find her?” Daniel asked, shaking his head doubtfully. Will turned to look at him and suddenly he seemed energy-charged, as though he were about to go to work. I laughed nervously.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. “How are you going to find her? How can you find that girl: the girl that will stay with you, and be with you—forever?”
We were all staring at Will, waiting for the world-changing answer. But he was quiet.
“So—are you going to tell us?” Jake asked, impatiently.
Will laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Heck, I don’t know!” he exclaimed.
Daniel smacked his hand against his forehead and rolled his eyes.
“But,” added Will, springing his trap, “I know where I’m not going to find her.”
“What do you mean?” Jake asked.
“I’m not going to find her sleeping with some other man. I’m not going to find her wandering around in confusion over who she is and what she wants. I’m not going to find her in the usual places where guys and girls go shopping for someone to shack up with for the night. Wherever she is, she’ll be busy, learning and doing and changing the world in her own way.”
I saw Daniel begin to nod. He was looking out of his window and I couldn’t see his face. Jake was staring at Will, not quite getting it.
“That narrows down the search quite a bit,” Daniel commented. “But what if you still don’t find her?”
“Then I’m still not going to join the throng of mindless dicks out there looking for a dizney-whore to take advantage of.” Will was frowning but Daniel laughed explosively through his nose.
“I can’t believe you just said that!”
I ducked down again, hiding my face. This conversation was a little too point-blank for me but at the same time, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I felt a knot in my stomach develop. Was I on the verge of being that “confused girl wandering around, not knowing who I am and what I want?” I shook my head.
“Besides,” Will added, “I haven’t got anything to offer a girl yet.”
“What do you mean? You’re not—equipped?” Daniel was still laughing. Will grinned.
“Like you never will be, kiddo. No, I mean it would be hard for a girl to stay with me right now. I don’t have everything a girl needs in order to stay with me.”
“Like what?” Daniel appeared seriously interested now. He sat forward and looked across the truck at Will.
Will rolled his head around, popping his neck. Then he looked into the rearview mirror at me.
“Mona? What does a forever-girl need in order to stay with a guy?”
I felt a little stunned at the weight of that question but I wanted to answer it more than I’d wanted to answer anything in my whole life. Will had called me a “forever-girl.” What I said next had to be right, it had to be true. Not just what I wanted—but what I needed. I took a deep breath.
“To be loved, even when I’m not at my best. To be cared for—like, to have food and some clothes and a house of some kind. Even if it isn’t much, just a safe place to live, have kids and raise them. To be appreciated for who I am and what I can do—valued, I guess. There might be more that a girl would want . . . but I think that is all that she’d—that I’d—really need.”
I was hoping for some kind of response or a question, but the boys were silent. I don’t think I realized until later that the things I’d said were a weight on them. To me, it didn’t sound like much to ask, but to them, it was a load none of them could carry yet.
“I see,” Daniel said, finally.
“What do you see?” Will asked, glancing over at him.
“Why you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Yet,” added Will, as he shifted into four-wheel drive and turned onto the long muddy road that leads to our farm.