Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Sorcerer's Smile--A reservation story for Christmas (iii)


Gary Lokhorst wasn’t the only one there who was a little worried about BillyBates, because the minute Rev. Lokhorst yelled out that name, all over those dusty roads the people stopped in their tracks and looked around, stood still and couldn’t help look back, like Lot’s wife.

“The last one here is for Billy Bates,”Rev. Lokhorst says again.

When you’re with Indian people, you get used to the quiet because with them–at least back then–silence was a virtue.There’s not much being said, and this Billy Bates, the witch doctor, turns around himself.You see, the man didn’t much care for white man’s religion–not at least when he had his own way, proven through the centuries,he’d say too, I’m sure.

Some things about being human are just plain bigger than whatever color is painted on our faces, and right then Billy Bates knew that his people were watching him, seeing what was going to happen.And there stands Rev. Lokhorst with that bundle in his hands. He folds it under an arm for a minute and jumps back down to the ground from the back of the truck because he’s not going to hand it down to him. I think I knew that, right then.

And he meets him half way, too. I mean Reverend Lokhorst walks out to meet Mr. Billy Bates, rather than let him come to the truck and reach up for it and all of that.He goes–the preacher–out to meet him and gives him the bundle.

Meanwhile, the people are standing there still as stone.

There’s twine around the bundle, but Billy’s got a knife, see, and he cuts it without looking down. I swear it–he never looked down to cut the twine, just looked around at his people.

The twine untwisted, and just like that Billy Bates held in his two hands a black wool overcoat some old man in Michigan likely bought before the Great War. Double breasted, and a belt–you know the type?–wide collars, plenty of pockets. Not a cheap thing is what I’m saying, but maybe old-fashioned.

The sun was just marking that broad slope behind the people, a swath of land that runs up east like a berm in that red land, up high enough for pines to grow, which is why they called the place Pinedale.

Billy Bates liked the coat. First time I saw a smile pass on that dark face of his, full of wrinkles. Not that he thanked the preacher. That wasn’tit. He held it in his hands like it was the first helping of something good he’d had in a month of Sundays.

He stuck his arms through the sleeves and pulled it up over his shoulders, a big man for a Navajo. You got to hand it to the preacher for knowing that most of those people would have drowned in that thing,but those big shoulders of Billy Bates filled it up like Al Capone, and I should know–I was born in Chicago.


But here’s the thing. There the man stood right in the middle of the action, all eyes on him as if there were a spotlight up there shining down from the hill of pines.There he stood in a long black coat, buttoning it, one at a time, loving it.

And it was a little kid, some child, who said it–in the Navajo language. I didn’t get it all right away. It had to be explained later on, but all of a sudden this little boy walks right up to Billy Bates in that long black coat,and he says, “A na shoo di.”

What did I know? Nothing.

Just like that, Gary grabs my arm and pulls me down on the back of the truck. “The kid just called him a preacher,”Gary said.

You got to get this now, or the story makes no sense. The little kid called the medicine man a preacher because the little kid saw the long blackcoat priests and preachers used to wear.

A na shoo di,” the kid says,and nobody moved.

Billy Bates looked up at Reverend Lokhorst for the first time all afternoon,and slowly, Indian style, a smile grew from ear to ear, as he turned all the way around in that long wool coat. It was the last gift, and the people didn’t know how to take it exactly.
Billy Bates looked at the preacher and just nodded his head as if to say that this time, this time, the preacher one-upped him, on a cold Christmas Eve, a single warm gift, turning the medicine man into a man of the cloth, Rev. Lokhorst’s own bit of voodoo.

But Billy Bates just loved the coat. He just loved the coat.

And the people laughed–out loud too yet. And then they picked up their things and started walking home for Christmas.

So the question you asked me yesterday,right before we opened presents at your parents’ house, was, “Papa, what was your all-time favorite Christmas?” I couldn’t give you that answer just then, not sitting there around the tree. It took me most of two days to write it out.

But the way I got it figured, Max, that Pinedale Christmas had to be one of the finest ever. I stayed warm all the way home in the back of that pickup. Everywhere you looked there was joy that day, everywhere.Even in me, tough as I was, something melted with that old medicine man’s smile.

Peace on earth.

But then maybe that day we sat around your tree was better. After all, your great grandma and I don’t know how many we’re going to get like that one again, and I’mway too old to sit in the back of a pickup.

It took the Lord’s own will to make me understand some things about who I was and what I was supposed to be, Max, just as it will you. It didn’t happen overnight either. But Christmas at the Pinedale School is one I’ll never forget, for more reasons than you can count and I can write. The smile on Billy Bates’ face–and all the smiles all around–brought one to mine, too, and right then I hadn’t had that many that I remember.

When I think about it, it may have been my very first real Christmas.

But the best holiday, for me and your great-grandma, is still the one to come.You know what I mean.

Hope I didn’t go on and on here.Grandma says she could have said it in a hundred words. But I tell her she married me because I sweet-talked her, way back when, once I settled down and found the right path home.

One way or another, we’ll be at your concert again next year, if your voice don’t change. And if it does, like it will, we’ll be just as happy. We’ll hear the music, I know–in heaven above or earth below.

And one more thing. Thanks so much for the slippers. They fit good.

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