It's hard to talk about American Gods without mentioning Crazy Horse, the great Lakota Chief.
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Shown below: The cover design of Crazy Horse's Vision, by Joseph Bruchac
by Judee Shipman
For those who wish to know why I wrote a book about the life of Crazy Horse, and how I found a photo of the man, I hereby embarrass myself on your behalf.
The following story is literally true.
Names have been changed to protect the people who wish to pretend they don't know me.
September 19th, 2009:
“Did you know Jay Blem?” asked my friend Theo.
The question made me stop what I was doing. Phrasing it in the past tense had infused it with terrible news. My fingers lingered in the air above the keys. My eyes looked at the screen without seeing it.
“Don't tell me he died.” I stupidly suggested, as if a different set of words might alter the fact.
“Yesterday.” said Theo. “They posted a notice on the website. Says he sold chess books in Southern California. Says he was fifty-one... Friend of yours?”
“Oh! I'm sorry,” said Theo. “Did you know him very well?”
“Not too well,” I had to admit. “I used to see him at chess tournaments from time to time. I only spoke to him a few times in my whole life... but he was always a gentleman... and... “
My voice trailed off like smoke as a memory fragment took shape.
“And what?” Theo asked.
“And... I remember the last time I saw him,” I said, “at a tournament in L.A. We hung out in his hotel room on his lunch hour. I remember him telling me he had health issues. Like his dad, who died at forty-five. He told me he only had about five years to live, according to what the doctors had said. He made me promise not to tell. That was about five years ago. Maybe six…”
“He lived way down in the desert,” I continued, in response to the question I'd just asked myself about why I hadn't seen Jay in such a long time.
Jay Blem lived in Lucerne Valley. Jay was a pleasant, unassuming, socially awkward fellow. Quietly intelligent. Entirely trustworthy. Exceedingly helpful to others. Always a gentleman.
How well I remembered the bittersweet honor of being trusted with so grave a secret by someone I did not know well. How plainly he had regarded me as a friend.
But we had long ago fallen out of touch, and this was all I could remember about the last time I saw Jay.
Still, I had the impression that Jay was standing nearby. Just behind me, to my right. Standing by.
“Yeah, that's sad.” I lamely concluded. “Fifty-one is kinda young.”
Soon after, although not at all unhappy, I felt compelled to make inconvenient changes. For instance, I didn't hate my office job, and $2,100 in the bank was all I had. Of that, $1,500 would be needed to pay rent in a few days. I had a small monthly income from my websites, but still I was barely scraping by. Yet, I was sure I had to quit my job, move to a better apartment, and have my daughter switch to a better school in the middle of fifth grade.
I quit my job as Christmas was arriving. All the moving and school switching and holiday preparations kept me busy, not to mention broke.
I had always wanted to make a living as a writer, so I scanned craigslist for writing jobs and to my complete surprise, I was soon getting regular, well paid gigs – Science fair project outlines for an educational website; Business listings for AOL; Self-help pieces for local magazines; Funny top ten lists for an online retailer.
Life seemed to have improved for no reason.
I spent my down time reading, and became interested in the works of Jack London. I had been assigned to read Call of the Wild back in 3rd grade, but I couldn’t even get past the first few pages, as I cannot bear even the thought of any bad thing happening to a dog.
Yet, his stories of the lepers in Hawaii were intriguing, and the story whose narrator is a “feeb” was poignant and hilarious.
So I asked Theo to see what he could find by Jack London in bookstores.
Then I came across the works for which Jack London is notorious – wicked, racist slurs against minorities, Native Americans especially.
One stomach-turning tale described Alaskan natives as vile, filthy, lazy, physically repugnant, mentally challenged weaklings who lie, steal, beat their wives, and smell like rotting flesh.
Our nation's first professional writer further implied that all Indian men lust after white women (particularly), and that all Indian women are beyond flattered (or at least should be) when fancied by a white man.
I googled Jack London. Turns out he was a greedy, self-absorbed, White Supremacist dirt bag with a drinking problem.
For some reason, having liked some of his stories left me feeling vaguely ashamed and mildly depressed.
Suddenly, and for the fifth time in two days, I was prodded by the notion that my blue ceramic kitchen tiles needed grout.
I never get around to remodeling. I just think about doing it, then ignore it for three months, then think about doing it some more. But lately I had a strange sense of urgency. I kept getting these prodding sensations.
I'd be pondering a thought (like Jack London's racism, for instance), and I'd get this weird feeling like I was being urged, or prodded, to do something entirely unrelated (like grouting the kitchen counter tiles, for instance).
It was a gentle-yet-persistent prodding that only abated when I followed its lead, whether or not I understood why. It struck me that there was someone nearby, offering these suggestions.
It was the same prodding that caused me to quit my job and move to a new apartment. I didn't know what was causing it, but going along with it hadn't seemed to do me any harm so far. So I grouted the kitchen counter top.
It took most of a day to fill each space with the grainy white mixture, and most of another day to let it nearly dry so I could sand it. My arm ached after awhile, but I had to finish sanding before the grout went dry.
It struck me that I was being prepared for something, sort of like The Karate Kid, who exhausted himself washing cars before advancing to some higher state of awareness.
I was breathless and my arm was getting numb as I sanded and sanded the perpendicular spaces between the tiles, hypnotically lost in the repetitive shushing sound the sandpaper made, as my arm moved swiftly back and forth, to and fro.
A few minutes later, Theo walked in. He carried, as usual, an armload of books.
“How's it going?” Theo asked, with characteristic cheer.
“Fine,” I replied. “I'm sanding the grout with Jay... I mean, I'm sanding the grout.”
“With Jay?” Theo inquired with an eyebrow aloft.
“Yeah. I mean, it was like we were sanding the grout together. It's like he was admiring my work or something. I even... kind of... almost think I... might have heard his voice.”
“Okay,” said Theo in a condescending tone that I'm sure was unintended, like the gentle way you speak to someone standing on a ledge.
“Was there something going on between the two of you?”
“No. I never got to know him very well. We used to run into each other now and then.”
“Hmm. I wonder why you think of him so much,” said Theo.
“I wonder the same thing myself,” I admitted. “We were just friends, but I think we both kinda knew we were fond of each other… and I remember the last time I saw him… I tried to invite myself to his house for a visit, but he wouldn't let me come over.”
“Why wouldn't he let you come over?” Theo asked.
“He said his house was trashed,” I explained, as another memory segment revealed itself. “I kept offering to come over and help him fix it up, but I think he was embarrassed by it. So maybe it's like we're doing that now. Fixing up this place together... you know, instead.”
At this point, Theo either lost interest or thought it best to change the subject. Just as well, since I was starting to feel ridiculous.
“Look!” Theo said, holding a pair of hardcover volumes aloft with a satisfied smile. “I got you two Jack London books!”
“Jack London makes me sick.”
“Oh!” said Theo with understandable surprise. “What changed your mind?”
I told Theo of the horrifying story I'd read. It ended with an Indian murdering his own brother in cold blood, by shooting him in the back when he wasn't looking, in order to follow the more righteous path of the Great White Man and his Great White Wife.
My bone marrow froze like it does in frigid weather, but I was standing in my California kitchen on a mild, sunny day.
“Theo,” I said, “I'm a bit disturbed lately. I think I need to hear an Indian talking. You know, like an antidote to Jack London. Do you have any books by Indians?”
“I think I may have a copy of 'Black Elk Speaks'.” Theo replied.
“Black Elk Speaks?” I repeated.
“Yes,” said Theo. “It's a well known classic of Native American literature.”
Black Elk... Speaks. I had never heard of it. But it sounded like an Indian... talking.
“Okay! I'll read that.” I announced.
It shames me now to admit that at the time, everything I knew about Native American history and Indian culture could be written on the surface of a lady's pinky fingernail, bitten to the quick, with still enough room left to sign my name.
I cringe at the totality of my ignorance.
Soon I held a copy of Black Elk Speaks, bookmarked with a self-made promise to read it sometime. But I had to work on my paid writing gigs first. It was midday and I was alone, relishing the unbroken quite time.
I sat at my desk and began dreaming up science fair project ideas, along with fun titles to go with them:
Stopless Dancer (Build a perpetual motion machine, then explain why it doesn't work).
Know Your Asians (Can nationality be determined by facial features?).
Cockroaches, Termites, My Sister, and Other Pests (A study of creatures that bug us). …
For the first time, I was consciously aware of Jay near me. It's the feeling you get on realizing that a dear friend has entered the room. I'd had impressions like these before, as many people do. At least, I hope they do.
For some weeks after Abby was born, I sensed my grandmother just behind my right shoulder going, “Well! Isn't she just darling!!!,” in the pinched, high strung effusiveness that marked my grandmother's voice.
But I was raised by the type of conservative academics who dismiss such incidents as mere illusions, and who think there is something bloody well wrong with you for having them.
These “illusions” (or whatever it pleases you to call them) are usually fleeting, but Jay had persisted in my peripheral vision for weeks, no matter what else I was doing.
“Jay???” I said again, this time aloud.
Again I could have sworn I heard his voice, faint and distant, like the voice of a man standing twenty feet downwind and facing the other way.
Visually, he was leaning toward me with a rush of excited energy, and a smile that revealed faint dimples on a healthy complexion of some perfect Universal hue – sort of a backlit, pinkish-reddish-golden-yellow-bronze. I fancied it the color of blended humanity. It was as if all races were mixed like paint and applied to just one face.
His hair was silver, the hairline no longer receding. His chin was slightly cleft. He wore eyeglasses with thin wire rims, as he always had. His eyes were kind and serene. I noted the shape of his upturned nose, and a prominent lower lip some might call pouty.
He wore a very short white beard that shimmered. In life, Jay was always clean shaven, but the short, shimmering beard he now wore looked good on him.
This image of Jay persisted for as long as I cared to look. If I turned my head, the image moved accordingly, so I could always only see it off to the side on my right.
Just my imagination, perhaps.
But why was I seeing him so vividly? I'd only met him a few times, hadn't seen him in years, and never had a photo of him. Why, now, could I detect every feature on the face of Jay Blem, with the detailed, visual persistence of someone who is “real?”
Suddenly, a chest-heavy sadness overtook me and brought misty tears to my eyes.
“Oh, Jay, I am so sorry!” I said. “You were so young. I wish we'd had more time to hang out.”
I was sure I could feel his “arm” around my shoulder, conveying “All is well.”
We interacted, me and Jay, for a while. We engaged in conversations about what might have been, though I wasn't sure why.
For instance, I had once asked him to take me for a ride on his motorbike. Now all of a sudden it seemed a shame we never did that.
Me and Jay on a dry, windy ride through the exotic desert scenery of Southern California, with flowering cactuses and roadrunners and sand whizzing by and the jagged, purple-gray mountains approaching against the ever-changing colors of a warm evening sky.
How cool it would have been to do that!
A week later, I was certain Jay was with me on the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz. I was there with Abby and Theo. When I wandered off alone, Jay walked with me on the beach.
I couldn't discern what exactly he said, but it seemed he was encouraging me. He seemed to think things were going well. I had no idea what things he was referring to, but I was glad he thought well of them.
He seemed to think I should read more. For some reason, I hadn't the slightest doubt that his spirit was actually there. I looked down on the sand, and saw one set of footprints - my own, of course.
This reminded me of a joke, because everything reminds me of a joke:
God was showing a woman her life, symbolically inscribed in the sand. The woman saw 2 sets of footprints and asked God why there were 2 sets of footprints in the sand.
And God said "It is I, walking next to you."
Then the woman reached a difficult time in her life and noticed only one set of footprints in the sand. So the woman asked God why, during her time of greatest need, was there only one set of footprints in the sand?
And God said, "It is when you dated that Psycho. I wasn't sticking around for that shit."
Later that afternoon, we savored sweet, crunchy candy apples and roasted corn on the cob. Just the four of us.
Wait. Four of us?
Looking down and noticing I'd bought 4 ears of corn instead of 3, it occurred to me that I was dating a dead guy. I had to laugh.
I didn't know what to make of this, so I looked up Jay's name online, and found an obituary posted by his sister Sheri on a chess website.
I stared indecisively at Sheri's phone number on the screen. Five months had gone since Jay's passing. Oddly, I remembered Jay once telling me that his sister was nice and I'd like her. But Sheri was a stranger to me.
“Am I to call your sister?”
I decided it couldn't hurt to call Sheri, just to offer my condolences, and maybe a few fond words about Jay. I got her on the phone and I was getting all teary again telling her what a nice kind man her brother was, when Jay interrupted.
“Is,” said Jay. “Not was. Is”
… and I told her how I adored his understated humor and his unassuming personal style.
“Did you guys have something going on?” Sheri asked with palpable surprise.
“No,” I said. “We were just friends. I just wanted to say what a sweet, dear, and decent man he was.”
“Is,” said Jay.
“Is,” I obediently repeated, as a tear slid down the right side of my face. “Jay was – I mean, is - a very nice man.”
“Oh, how sweet!” said this fine, likable lady. “You know, he was my little brother, just a year younger than me. He was so dear to me. I always felt so protective of him. I loved him with all my heart. I was always inviting him over to my house, but Jay was such a loner. I could never seem to pin him down for a visit.”
“Me neither,” I offered weakly to the bereaved, adoring sister of a man I hardly knew.
I mentioned whatever I remembered about Jay. But it didn't take long to detail all my interactions with him through the years. There just wasn't very much to say about our earthly acquaintance.
“Well, thanks for calling, Judee,” Sheri said. “It's been very nice talking to you.”
“Wait,” came the word from my lips, uninvited.
“For what?” Sheri asked.
“There is... one more thing,” I said.
I was reminded of Lieutenant Columbo on TV back in the seventies. Near the end of each episode, Columbo would turn back around as he was leaving and say, “Oh, one more thing, Mr. Pennington.” Somehow, that one more thing always made the killer confess.
“Tell me,” said Sheri.
“I don't know how,” I replied.
“How to what?” asked Sheri.
“How to tell you,” I replied.
“Tell me what?” asked Sheri
“Well... I don't want to say anything to upset you.”
“Why would you upset me?”
“Well... I don't know if you believe... or how it might affect you if... The real reason I called....”
“What is the real reason you called?”
“Sheri,” I began, “I do not abuse hard substances and I am not mentally unstable. I am also not religious. And I don't make up stories. I can provide character references if you like.”
“Did you see his ghost or something?” Sheri asked.
Bingo! We had a winner. I was so grateful when Sheri said it first.
“YES!!!” I heave-hoed with gigantic relief, but then went back to being tongue tied again, because I have no idea what comes after yes, I've seen your brother's ghost.
I explained the situation as briefly as possible. Sheri kindly told me she was open-minded about such things.
“Sheri,” I said, “It's not that I mind, but why is he here? Wouldn't he have better things to do?”
“Yes, I imagine he would,” she agreed.
“He's just... so very patient,” I explained. “Waiting for me to... um… Waiting for me... to... “
“Waiting for you to WHAT?” Sheri urged.
“I don't know,” I admitted. “I can't finish the sentence.”
“Well, keep listening until he lets you know,” she said. “You said you spent an hour in his room. You must have talked about something besides him dying and you guys not dating.”
Sheri had an excellent point. I hadn't thought of it that way.
American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods American gods
Later, I was back at the keyboard outlining more science fair project ideas:
Eyes That Follow (Experiments in holography).
Make a Wish (How many spots does a ladybug have?).
Here's Looking at You (Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched? Can anyone really tell?).
But I was distracted by a persistent prodding to look up Jay's house on Google Earth. So I double-clicked the icon on my desktop. The blue-green ball spun forth as I typed Jay's address in the search bar.
The view orbited the earth a bit, then swooped down like an eagle on Lucerne Valley, and paused roughly fifty feet above Jay's house.
About five seconds later, the view plummeted to near ground level, veered sharply to the right, and landed with a soft bounce right in the middle of the street.
Suddenly, the view accelerated forward super fast down the exact center of Old Woman Springs Road.
On raced the view through the desert. Jagged, purple-gray mountains made their slow approach. A panoramic violet sky yawned overhead. Sands flew by on both sides of the road.
It was just like the view from a motorcycle.
I looked down at my hands. They were not touching the keyboard.
When I looked back at the screen, the view reached the base of a mountain and slowed to a gentle stop.
That was weird.
Next day, I was up in the attic smoking and sipping my coffee. Jay was still near, so I tried retracing our steps:
He had left an assistant in charge of the books.
I had walked him to his hotel room.
We sat across from each other at a table.
I made various suggestions about visiting, bike riding, remodeling.
My suggestions were met with a dismissive sigh.
Sadness filled the air.
I wished Jay didn't have such a negative attitude, not that I could blame him. I only wished he could enjoy the time he had left. But all he kept saying was “I haven't saved any money,” “I never had any kids,” “I haven't done anything important with my life,” and other verbal expressions of regret.
above image: worldgathering.net
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 1
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 2
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 3
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 4
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 5
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 6
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 7
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 8
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 9
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Chapter 10
American Gods: Crazy Horse Appearing - Appendixes
above image: myhero.com
Here are some Classic Short Stories from the public domain:
Told in the Drooling Ward, by Jack London
The Ransom of Red Chief, by O. Henry
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
Go here for selected Moral Stories.
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