The woman sitting beside me on the bus stirs in the blue early morning light. The sun comes up. She shifts her head down onto my shoulder. I don’t do anything about it. She showed up in Iowa, during the night. She is sick with something—her eyes have this animal-like quality.
We stop at a multiplex gas station somewhere west of Sioux Falls, the woman gets up from her seat and pushes her way off the bus. I watch from the window as she limps toward the neon lights of the truck stop. Everyone else is crowding to get off now. I see some men smoking in the parking lot. There is something in the way these men—three of them—stand together in silence, smoking under the cool red haze of the South Dakota dawn.
The bus breaks down at seven AM. It limps over to the side of the highway and stops. We wait in our seats for a while until the driver tells us to get off. All of us pile onto the side of highway like freshly hatched moths, and we blink in the morning sun, and we dry ourselves. We shuffle soundlessly around the shoulder of I-90. I watch the cars pass. The sun is up now, and these people driving their cars down the highway, they must be going to work. I assume there is a town just beyond the horizon, full of businesses which are not hiring and expensive restaurants and cheap liquor stores which are also not hiring and dogs and green golf courses and foreclosed houses and empty parking lots and parents and their terrible misbehaving children. Just because you cannot see a thing does not mean it is not imminent, does not mean it is not approaching at you at a tremendous, breakneck speed.
Don Two Bulls, the school superintendent, rises when I walk into his office. He gets up slowly with a kind of delicate grace—his leather blazer’s sharp angles, his bolo tie like a noose around his neck, his cowboy hat. He cuts the room down the middle like a piece of furniture, like a table, say.
He pulls a piece of paper from a folder on his desk, and he finds my name on the list.
“You’re early,” he says. “Why are you so early? You aren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow. We aren’t ready for you.” I explain there must have been some kind of miscommunication because I thought I was four hours late. I show him my calendar.
“I ran into some trouble with the bus getting here,” I say.
“It’s fine,” he says. “We don’t have much for you to do until tomorrow, but there’s a lot of paper work, so I guess you can get started with that. Go to the front office and ask the Jayden to print it out for you. It will take you a few days to get through it all. But don’t put it off just because you have a head start.”
“I won’t,” I say. “Don’t worry about me,” he seems to detect something in my tone and curls his lip.
“I know your type,” he says looking down at some papers in front of him. “Special treatment’s over, you understand? You plan to teach seventh grade with those tight pants? Get some new clothes,” and he looks at me across his huge desk.
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
“Tell Jayden you need a ride over to the Baptist Mission. You’ll need to stay there tonight. Housing won’t be ready until tomorrow.”
Don Two Bulls walks around the table and stands near me for a moment. I can hear his breathing. He acts like he is preparing to say something, but then it’s over, and he opens the door leading back to the hallway.
“Office is that way,” he finally says. “Don’t put off that paperwork.”
The secretary, Jayden, is young, pretty and visibly pregnant. She stares at me like I’m the idiot.
“I’m a new AmeriCorps volunteer.” I say. “I’m supposed to pick up some paperwork.”
She does some quick and efficient typing on her computer. The printer in the corner of the room screeches and shakes, and begins spitting out paper.
“This is it here,” she finally says to me after a few minutes, and she reaches into a folder and hands me a thick pile of papers.
“What’s all of that then?” I asked, pointing to the printer, which was still spitting out pages.
“That’s something else,” she tells me.
Jayden can’t give me a ride to the Baptist mission until the office closes in the evening, so I wait around for six hours. I haven’t eaten since before the bus breakdown, and my stomach is making noises. I fall asleep in the corner of the office, propped up against the wall because there is no furniture besides her desk, and I am afraid to leave the building because I am afraid of the entire reservation. I wake up when Jayden shuts down her computer and dims the lights, and I get up quickly, and I get my bags. She locks the office door behind us.
We drive in silence. She opens her windows and the wind is hot, and the dust burns my throat. The sun is setting.
“I need some food,” I say as we drive through Pine Ridge. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
Jayden seems not to hear me.
“Will they have any food at the mission?” I ask. She ignores me. “I’m hungry now,” I say, but she doesn’t say anything. “Just stop here,” I finally yell, and I kick the dashboard.
She doesn’t say anything, but she pulls in to the Taco John’s . I go inside and buy some tacos.
Jayden is on the phone when I got back. I try not to listen to what she is saying, but the way her mouth moves, it is like the lapping of warm milk or the motion of a pendulum clock. I watch the bump on her stomach and imagine the creature that is about to be pulled from her body.
On the side of the road near the Baptist mission, we both see a badly mutilated goose. It looks as if it has been dragged under a car. I only catch a glimpse as we drive by—its beak upturned in rigor mortis. Its eyes, open to the red horizon.
When we arrive at the Baptist mission, I don’t move at first. I’m not sure why, but I hover there in the passenger seat like I’m waiting for something. I feel Jayden’s body filling the air—she, her terrible baby, and I. I almost say something, but then I don’t because I hate her.
“They won’t respect you,” she yells out the window as I am walking away, and then she is gone.
The Baptist mission itself is built like a fortress with heavy on locks and bars and bolts. A guy answers the door, an older white man who introduces himself as Verlaine. I notice that everything is secure here, even the interior doors have these impressive locks on them.
“The reservation gets scary sometimes,” Verlaine tells me. “This edge of town especially. People always hitching rides up to White Clay for booze,” and he points up the road toward White Clay. “We can’t always trust the people.”
Verlaine is just a guy. He lives there with his wife Marla. She is just a woman. In my room that night, I look out the window. It is covered with a heavy-duty iron mesh. Outside, in the security lights, I see a number of men waiting around, drinking from bottles in the shadows. In the morning, I see them sleeping in the grass. Verlaine tells me that the mission gives out food a few times a day, so the winos use the yard as a kind of hangout.
“It isn’t a problem,” he says. “They need somewhere to go. They were here in this lot before we built the mission,” he says, “and they’ll probably be here after we’re gone, so I guess you could say we have this space on loan from them.”
“Oh so that’s why you have the locks?” I ask. “To keep them out?” We are standing around, waiting for the coffee to be done. It is six in the morning.
“I wish it weren’t true,” he says.
I leave earlier than I need to, and I carry my bags down the empty road, back toward the town, past the Pizza Hut and the Taco John’s. Verlaine tells me to keep going the same direction and I’ll get to the school where our first day of orientation is to begin. No one is on the street—hardly anyone. I see one car filling up gas. It is still around six thirty. I make it to the school before seven. Things have picked up by then, there are more cars, and people are getting to work at the Tribal offices, and the lights and the human sounds are like the lights and sounds of any other small town.
I wait outside the school at the main doors with my three bags. The door is locked, so I wait. People drive by slowly, and they look at me.
We were supposed to start at 7:30, but I am still sitting there at eight o’clock. By chance, Don Two Bulls finds me. He is wandering around smoking a cigarette.
“We’re set up over here,” he says, waving at the side door he has just come through. “How long have you been waiting here?”
I tell him.
“Get inside,” he says, “before they eat all the food.”
I ask him about the people at my worksite in Manderson. He tells me I need to wait.
“You’ll meet them,” he says, “there’s two of them here today,” and he doesn’t say anything else. He doesn’t look at me either, just smokes and looks off toward the main road. Don Two Bulls never liked me. It was clear that day, but I couldn’t know for sure because these things take time to establish themselves, so I go inside and I smell the sour stink of every school, and down the hall in the library, I find all of the other AmeriCorps volunteers and some staff members. It is overwhelming, the entire terrible bunch of them—it is made worse by the fact that no one else seems as ill at ease as I am.
I finish my food and coffee, and a fellow named Gil directs us to sit in this circle. There are chairs already set up. We look at each other blankly and wait.
This white fellow, Gil, is from Cincinnati. He was the one who hired me over the phone. He is running the training today. He told me over the phone that he is a Dominican Friar—that he is part of the community of Dominicans here. They help with the AmeriCorps stuff. They help with lots of things.
So Gil has everyone introduce themselves, and he asks us to tell a story about how we got here, which is exactly the kind of thing he would do. He starts with me, because, I don’t know why, and I tell the story about how I showed up early by accident, and how I’d spent the night at the Baptist Mission with the heavy-duty mesh stuff on my windows and about how I saw those winos in the yard. I think Don Two Bulls can see that I am affected by this, that I am out of my depth here, and he seems to roll his eyes.
The volunteers are an odd bunch. I am the only normal one among them.
The introduction circle takes a long time because everyone wants to tell these involved stories. Gil cuts a few of them off, because they are taking too long, and by the time everyone is finished, we have killed two and a half hours, and we are behind schedule. Gil is visibly annoyed. He passes out these binders full of training materials. There are always binders; there are always training materials. This binder is full of smiling Native American children, and official AmeriCorps policies, and more forms we need to sign. I look out the window of the school cafeteria, and there is my future self—he is already out there near the trees, and through the door there are other rooms beyond this one, and my future self is already in those rooms as well, awake, moving unafraid.
Kaj Tanaka received his MFA from The University of Arkansas. He is the nonfiction editor for BULL.