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Short Story Classics




Louise Erdrich
b. 1954


The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich


Lyman Lamartine

I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation. And of course it was red, a red Olds. I owned that car along with my brother Henry Junior. We owned it together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share. Now Henry owns the whole car, and his youngest brother Lyman (that’s myself), Lyman walks everywhere he goes.

How did I earn enough money to buy my share in the first place? My own talent was I could always make money. I had a touch for it, unusual in a Chippewa. From the first I was different that way, and everyone recognized it. I was the only kid they let in the American Legion Hall to shine shoes, for example, and one Christmas I sold spiritual bouquets for the mission door to door. The nuns let me keep a percentage. Once I started, it seemed the more money I made the easier the money came. Everyone encouraged it. When I was fifteen I got a job washing dishes at the Joliet Cafe, and that was where my first big break happened.

It wasn’t long before I was promoted to busing tables, and then the short-order cook quit and I was hired to take her place. No sooner than you know it I was managing the Joliet. The rest is history. I went on managing. I soon became part owner, and of course there was no stopping me then. It wasn’t long before the whole thing was mine.

After I’d owned the Joliet for one year, it blew over in the worst tornado ever seen around here. The whole operation was smashed to bits. A total loss. The fryalator was up in a tree, the grill torn in half like it was paper. I was only sixteen. I had it all in my mother’s name, and I lost it quick, but before I lost it I had every one of my relatives, and their relatives, to dinner, and I also bought that red Olds I mentioned, along with Henry.

The first time we saw it! I’ll tell you when we first saw it. We had gotten a ride to Winnipeg, and both of us had money. Don’t ask me why, because we never mentioned a car or anything, we just had all our money. Mine was cash, a big bankroll from the Joliet’s insurance. Henry had two checks—a week’s extra pay for being laid off, and his regular check from the Jewel Bearing Plant.

We were walking down Portage anyway, seeing the sights, when we saw it. There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn’t simply stopped, parked, or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a for sale sign in its left front window. Then, before we had thought it over at all, the car belonged to us and our pockets were empty. We had just enough money for gas back home.

We went places in that car, me and Henry. We took off driving all one whole summer. We started off toward the Little Knife River and Mandaree in Fort Berthold and then we found ourselves down in Wakpala somehow, and then suddenly we were over in Montana on the Rocky Boy, and yet the summer was not even half over. Some people hang on to details when they travel, but we didn’t let them bother us and just lived our everyday lives here to there.

I do remember this place with willows. I remember I laid under those trees and it was comfortable. So comfortable. The branches bent down all around me like a tent or a stable. And quiet, it was quiet, even though there was a powwow close enough so I could see it going on. The air was not too still, not too windy either. When the dust rises up and hangs in the air around dancers like that, I feel good. Henry was asleep with his arms thrown wide. Later on, he woke up and we started driving again. We were somewhere in Montana, or maybe on the Blood Reserve—it could have been anywhere. Anyway it was where we met the girl.

All her hair was in buns around her ears, that’s the first thing I noticed about her. She was posed alongside the road with her arm out, so we stopped. That girl was short, so short her lumber shirt looked comical on her, like a nightgown. She had jeans on and fancy moccasins and she carried a little suitcase.

“Hop on in,” says Henry. So she climbs in between us.

“We’ll take you home,” I says. “Where do you live?”

“Chicken,” she says.

“Where the hell’s that?” I ask her.

“ Alaska.”

“Okay,” says Henry, and we drive.

We got up there and never wanted to leave. The sun doesn’t truly set there in summer, and the night is more a soft dusk. You might doze off, sometimes, but before you know it you’re up again, like an animal in nature. You never feel like you have to sleep hard or put away the world. And things would grow up there. One day just dirt or moss, the next day flowers and long grass. The girl’s name was Susy. Her family really took to us. They fed us and put us up. We had our own tent to live in by their house, and the kids would be in and out of there all day and night. They couldn’t get over me and Henry being brothers, we looked so different. We told them we knew we had the same mother, anyway.

One night Susy came in to visit us. We sat around in the tent talking of this and that. The season was changing. It was getting darker by that time, and the cold was even getting just a little mean. I told her it was time for us to go. She stood up on a chair.

“You never seen my hair,” Susy said.

That was true. She was standing on a chair, but still, when she unclipped her buns the hair reached all the way to the ground. Our eyes opened. You couldn’t tell how much hair she had when it was rolled up so neatly. Then my brother Henry did something funny. He went up to the chair and said, “Jump on my shoulders.” So she did that, and her hair reached down past his waist, and he started twirling, this way and that, so her hair was flung out from side to side.

“I always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair,” Henry says. Well, we laughed. It was a funny sight, the way he did it. The next morning we got up and took leave of those people.

On to greener pastures, as they say. It was down through Spokane and across Idaho then Montana and very soon we were racing the weather right along under the Canadian border through Columbus, Des Lacs, and then were in Bottineau County and soon home. We’d made most of the trip, that summer, without putting up the car hood at all. We got home just in time.

I don’t wonder that the army was so glad to get my brother that they turned him into a Marine. He was built like a brick outhouse anyway. We liked to tease him that they really wanted him for his Indian nose. He had a nose big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways. Henry went off to training camp, came home once during Christmas, then the next thing you know we got an overseas letter from him. It was 1970, and he said he was stationed up in the northern hill country. Whereabouts I did not know. He wasn’t such a hot letter writer, and only got off two before the enemy caught him. I could never keep it straight, which direction those good Vietnam soldiers were from.

I wrote him back several times, even though I didn’t know if those letters would get through. I kept him informed all about the car. Most of the time I had it up on blocks in the yard or half taken apart, because that long trip did a hard job on it under the hood.

I always had good luck with numbers, and never worried about the draft myself. I never even had to think about what my number was. But Henry was never lucky in the same way as me. It was at least three years before Henry came home. By then I guess the whole war was solved in the government’s mind, but for him it would keep on going. In those years I’d put his car into almost perfect shape. I always thought of it as his car while he was gone, even though when he left he said, “Now it’s yours,” and threw me his key.

“Thanks for the extra key,” I’d said. “I’ll put it in your drawer just in case I need it.” He laughed.

When he came home, though, Henry was very different, and I’ll say this: the change was no good. You could hardly expect him to change for the better, I know. But he was quiet, so quiet, and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around. I thought back to times we’d sat still for whole afternoons, never moving a muscle, just shifting our weight along the ground, talking to whoever sat with us, watching things. He’d always had a joke, then, too, and now you couldn’t get him to laugh, or when he did it was more the sound of a man choking, a sound that stopped up the throats of other people around him. They got to leaving him alone most of the time, and I didn’t blame them. It was a fact: Henry was jumpy and mean.

I’d bought a color TV set for my mom and the rest of us while Henry was away. Money still came very easy. I was sorry I’d ever bought it though, because of Henry. I was also sorry I’d bought color, because with black-and-white the pictures seem older and farther away. But what are you going to do? He sat in front of it, watching it, and that was the only time he was completely still. But it was the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt. He was not easy. He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might, as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set.

Once I was in the room watching TV with Henry and I heard his teeth click at something. I looked over, and he’d bitten through his lip. Blood was going down his chin. I tell you right then I wanted to smash that tube to pieces. I went over to it but Henry must have known what I was up to. He rushed from his chair and shoved me out of the way, against the wall. I told myself he didn’t know what he was doing.

My mom came in, turned the set off real quiet, and told us she had made something for supper. So we went and sat down. There was still blood going down Henry’s chin, but he didn’t notice it and no one said anything, even though every time he took a bite of his bread his blood fell onto it until he was eating his own blood mixed in with the food.

While Henry was not around we talked about what was going to happen to him. There were no Indian doctors on the reservation, and my mom couldn’t come around to trusting the old man, Moses Pillager, because he courted her long ago and was jealous of her husbands. He might take revenge through her son. We were afraid that if we brought Henry to a regular hospital they would keep him.

“They don’t fix them in those places,” Mom said; “they just give them drugs.”

“We wouldn’t get him there in the first place,” I agreed, “so let’s just forget about it.”

Then I thought about the car.

Henry had not even looked at the car since he’d gotten home, though like I said, it was in tip-top condition and ready to drive. I thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow. So I bided my time and waited for my chance to interest him in the vehicle.

One night Henry was off somewhere. I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and I did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler loose. By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes. It just about hurt me, I’ll tell you that! I threw dirt in the carburetor and I ripped all the electric tape off the seats. I make it look just as beat up as I could. Then I sat back and waited for Henry to find it.

Still, it took him over a month. That was all right, because it was just getting warm enough, not melting, but warm enough to work outside.

“Lyman,” he says, walking in one day, “that red car looks like shit.”

“Well, it’s old,” I says. “You got to expect that.”

“No way!” says Henry. “That car’s a classic! But you went and ran the piss right out of it, Lyman, and you know it don’t deserve that. I kept that car in A-one shape. You don’t remember. You’re too young. But when I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don’t even know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition.”

“Well you try,” I said, like I was getting mad, “but I say it’s a piece of junk.”

Then I walked out before he could realize I knew he’d strung together more than six words at once.

After that I thought he’d freeze himself to death working on that car. He was out there all day, and at night he rigged up a little lamp, ran a cord out the window, and had himself some light to see by while he worked. He was better than he had been before, but that’s still not saying much. It was easier for him to do the things the rest of us did. He ate more slowly and didn’t jump up and down during the meal to get this or that or look out the window. I put my hand in the back of the TV set, I admit, and fiddled around with it good, so that it was almost impossible now to get a clear picture. He didn’t look at it very often anyway. He was always out with that car or going off to get parts for it. By the time it was really melting outside, he had it fixed.

I had been feeling down in the dumps about Henry around this time. We had
always been together before. Henry and Lyman. But he was such a loner now that I didn’t know how to take it. So I jumped at the chance one day when Henry seemed friendly. It’s not that he smiled or anything. He just said, “Let’s take that old shitbox for a spin.” Just the way he said it made me think he could be coming around.

We went out to the car. It was spring. The sun was shining very bright. My only sister, Bonita, who was just eleven years old, came out and made us stand together for a picture. Henry leaned his elbow on the red car’s windshield, and he took his other arm and put it over my shoulder, very carefully, as though it was heavy for him to lift and he didn’t want to bring the weight down all at once.

“Smile,” Bonita said, and he did.

That picture. I never look at it anymore. A few months ago, I don’t know why, I got his picture out and tacked it on the wall. I felt good about Henry at the time, close to him. I felt good having his picture on the wall, until one night when I was looking at television. I was a little drunk and stoned. I looked up at the wall and Henry was staring at me. I don’t know what it was, but his smile had changed, or maybe it was gone. All I know is I couldn’t stay in the same room with that picture. I was shaking. I got up, closed the door, and went into the kitchen. A little later my friend Ray came over and we both went back into that room. We put the picture in a brown bag, folded the bag over and over tightly, then put it way back in a closet.

I still see that picture now, as if it tugs at me, whenever I pass that closet door. The picture is very clear in my mind. It was so sunny that day Henry had to squint against the glare. Or maybe the camera Bonita held flashed like a mirror, blinding him, before she snapped the picture. My face is right out in the sun, big and round. But he might have drawn back, because the shadows on his face are deep as holes. There are two shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile, as if to frame it and try to keep it there—that one, first smile that looked like it might have hurt his face. He has his field jacket on and the worn-in clothes he’d come back in and kept wearing ever since. After Bonita took the picture, she went into the house and we got into the car. There was a full cooler in the trunk. We started off, east, toward Pembina and the Red River because Henry said he wanted to see the high water.

The trip over there was beautiful. When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting. Henry felt it, too. The top was down and the car hummed like a top. He’d really put it back in shape, even the tape on the seats was very carefully put down and glued back in layers. It’s not that he smiled again or even joked, but his face looked to me as if it was clear, more peaceful. It looked as though he wasn’t thinking of anything in particular except the bare fields and windbreaks and houses we were passing.

The river was high and full of winter trash when we got there. The sun was still out, but it was colder by the river. There were still little clumps of dirty snow here and there on the banks. The water hadn’t gone over the banks yet, but it would, you could tell. It was just at its limit, hard swollen, glossy like an old gray scar. We made ourselves a fire, and we sat down and watched the current go. As I watched it I felt something squeezing inside me and tightening and trying to let go all at the same time. I knew I was not just feeling it myself; I knew I was feeling what Henry was going through at that moment. Except that I couldn’t stand it, the closing and opening. I jumped to my feet. I took Henry by the shoulders and I started shaking him. “Wake up,” I says, “wake up, wake up, wake up!” I didn’t know what had come over me. I sat down beside him again.

His face was totally white and hard. Then it broke, like stones break all of a sudden when water boils up inside them.

“I know it,” he says. “I know it. I can’t help it. It’s no use.”

We start talking. He said he knew what I’d done with the car. It was obvious it had been whacked out of shape and not just neglected. He said he wanted to give the car to me for good now, it was no use. He said he’d fixed it just to give it back and I should take it.

“No way,” I says. “I don’t want it.”

“That’s okay,” he says, “you take it.”

“I don’t want it, though,” I says back to him, and then to emphasize, just to emphasize, you understand, I touch his shoulder. He slaps my hand off.

“Take that car,” he says.

“No,” I say. “Make me,” I say, and then he grabs my jacket and rips the arm loose. That jacket is a class act, suede with tags and zippers. I push Henry backwards, off the log. He jumps up and bowls me over. We go down in a clinch and come up swinging hard, for all we’re worth, with our fists. He socks my jaw so hard I feel like it swings loose. Then I’m at his rib cage and land a good one under his chin so his head snaps back. He’s dazzled. He looks at me and I look at him and then his eyes are full of tears and blood and at first I think he’s crying. But no, he’s laughing. “Ha, ha!” he says. “Ha! Ha! Take good care of it.”

“Okay,” I says. “Okay, no problem. Ha! Ha!”

I can’t help it, and I start laughing, too. My face feels fat and strange, and after a while I get a beer from the cooler in the trunk, and when I hand it to Henry he takes his shirt and wipes my germs off. “Hoof-and-mouth disease,” he says. For some reason this cracks me up, and so we’re really laughing for a while, and then we drink all the rest of the beers one by one and throw them in the river and see how far, how fast, the current takes them before they fill up and sink.

“You want to go on back?” I ask after a while. “Maybe we could snag a couple nice Kashpaw girls.”

He says nothing. But I can tell his mood is turning again.

“They’re all crazy, the girls up here, every damn one of them.”

“You’re crazy too,” I say, to jolly him up. “Crazy Lamartine boys!”

He looks as though he will take this wrong at first. His face twists, then clears, and he jumps up on his feet. “That’s right!” he says. “Crazier ’n hell. Crazy Indians!”

I think it’s the old Henry again. He throws off his jacket and starts springing his legs up from the knees like a fancy dancer. He’s down doing something between a grass dance and a bunny hop, no kind of dance I ever saw before, but neither has anyone else on all this green growing earth. He’s wild. He wants to pitch whoopee! He’s up and at me and all over. All this time I’m laughing so hard, so hard my belly is getting tied up in a knot.

“Got to cool me off!” he shouts all of a sudden. Then he runs over to the river and jumps in.

There’s boards and other things in the current. It’s so high. No sound comes from the river after the splash he makes, so I run right over. I look around. It’s getting dark. I see he’s halfway across the water already, and I know he didn’t swim there but the current took him. It’s far. I hear his voice, though, very clearly across it.

“My boots are filling,” he says.

He says this in a normal voice, like he just noticed and he doesn’t know what to think of it. Then he’s gone. A branch comes by. Another branch. And I go in.

By the time I get out of the river, off the snag I pulled myself onto, the sun is down. I walk back to the car, turn on the high beams, and drive it up the bank. I put it in first gear and then I take my foot off the clutch. I get out, close the door, and watch it plough softly into the water. The headlights reach in as they go down, searching, still lighted even after the water swirls over the back end. I wait. The wires short out. It is all finally dark. And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.