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  Art by Shalo Smith-Olaya
'Art'  2006 Shalo Smith-Olaya

Small Battles, High Plains

 

I am shaking hands with the referee, a Nez Perce that the Indians brought in special. He’s not white, so I’m not expecting a fair game. But at least he’s not from the local tribes.

“So, it’s agreed then. Unlimited substitutions? The long bench?”

“Does it rain here much?” I ask, eyeing the blue sky with its few, puff white clouds.

Someone answers: “Sometimes.”

Where the fuck is Reno? I agree to their terms. I don’t bargain with Redmen, and I have Major Reno and the van with the rest of the men as my hole card. These poor Indians think I’m here with a fife and drum crew and my starting five. Dullards and saps. “Long bench then. Fine with me, it’s an exhibition game.”

“Fine then. Fine.” He has me shake hands with the silent oldster who has come out to act as their coach. Only a few young braves mill around the home team’s bench. They don’t look imposing. I don’t know why the substitution thing.

The Nez Perce referee and I walk the same direction off the court. I say, “Your English is great. Did you go to a tribal school?”

He gives me a funny look and shakes his head. “I have BA from Cal.”

“Good. Good for you.” I’m just currying favor. “Open admissions success story, huh? Well done.”

But the official in him takes over and he turns stony on me. But you never know with Indians. They’ve got to be drunk to show any emotion at all.

Back at the bench, I’m eating a second stale biscotti. I should’ve told the men to bring things to eat. It was in our contract that the local tribe would provide refreshments for us. I mean, this exhibition game is out of season. Trust an Indian to break an agreement. They’re learning from us. Maybe the buffet after the game will be good.

After I got back to the bench, the previously silent crowd started with the drums. Drummer says something that makes me look up. I signal I can’t hear him. You’d think they’d wait until –

Stridently, “Here they come, sir!”

“It’s just what I thought.” Without being obvious, I scan the horizon, trying to see what he means. I pick up the dust clouds to the North. Ever the commander, ever in control, I check all around, looking for similar signs. Standing, I indicate, with an open hand, the direction of the dust cloud and trace the line of the road back toward us. “They’ll come up that valley, and then turn, and arrive from the EAST.”

My men nod somberly, and the starting five begin to limber up. There is some stretching of calves and hammies. Some take seats on the court, choosing instead contortions that tease their groins or work their lower backs.

I watch the Indians come in, all manner of transport, ATVs, trucks, sundry jalopies charged with copper-skinned folk. I recognize the uniforms of several reservations, the Crow, the Blackfeet, the Micmac, and even some Navajo. Sioux, both Ogala and Lakota, Cheyenne, and just everyone, all of them. They circle the field, and the crowd comes to life, war-whoops and ululations, great chopping and cutting motions.

An old Indian settles on the end of our bench and begins laying out Ace bandages and splints. Poultices are prepped and kept in a crock-pot. The air begins to smell of mustard. He says, “I am the medicine man under whose care you now fall.”

I compliment him on his English.

He waves my approbation off, a slight gesture, a wheat stalk shifted aside by a clever hunter. “My name is Returns-from-Wounded Knee. But call me Randal.”

“Wonderful. Have you seen Reno? Our starting point guard is with Reno.”

“As a healer, I can only deal in specifics. What is not present, is not. You see? My mission is healing.”

***

My pre-game speech and I am nervous. I can’t read from my normal beat-the-Indians index card. “Okay, we’re shorthanded, right? So no fouls. If you’re beaten, let them have the shot. We’re going to need everyone. It’s too bad. Indians can never make their free throws. Good to foul ‘em. Piccolo, Fife, Drummer, we’ll need the musicians to limber up. We may need you for later. When we’re up some, the team’ll need to rest. I want you little fuckers available to spell the real players. Questions? No? All right, we’ll open in Man defense the first couple times they come down the floor, see if any of them are worth a damn. Taos? Press up if the ball handler gets lazy coming across half-court. Everyone, look to trap on the wings, try and get some quick turnovers.”

I glance up from the huddle and Stevie Sits-in-the-Grass waves at me from the stands, a simpering look on his face. He’s the Indian beat reporter for the Union Ledger. Poison pen that one. A race man. But what can you do? Since Lloyd No-Cloud left to write PR copy for Intel, media coverage of our efforts is certainly not as positive. I have taken to reading USA Today to get some unbiased coverage of the Dakota Territory. Fucking reporters. And they’re always such angels before the game.

I continue my Gipper act, “Okay. The situation then is something like this. The Indians have goaded me into playing with just Troop B. Reno and the rest of the team’ll get here. We’ve...” I look around the arena and then back down at the players. The Indians have set up a basketball court outside, between the bleachers of their football stadium. The noise of the drums is deafening, the screams and war-hollers. I nod, significantly, saying, loudly enough for them to hear, but still conspiratorially, “Only an Indian would host a basketball game in a football stadium.”

My pause has drawn them up, and the insider status that I’ve given them just now, by talking about the football stadium, has totally relaxed them. They can see that I’m not worried. I say, “Jeez, I don’t imagine they’re any good at football either. Anyway, we’ve just got to hold things until the half, and when Reno arrives, we’ll have a bigger front line, as well as Lemmon. With this team we’ve got right here, we’ll be able to go ugly and work the low blocks. And rebounding. When we start with the physical stuff down low, the meanness, the elbows and the bumps...” Big pause. “You’re not listening anymore. You never want to listen. All right, you want to get out there. Fine, Gateway, on three.”

The hands in the middle and all the voices, “One-Two-Three, Gateway!”

And so my cow-uniformed boys take the floor.

***

“There was, in conjunction, the such and such. Never the so and so. Except for that time that dirty so and so such and such did something to someone.” Randal is using his monotonous healer’s voice to mutter to Snowy Evans, who took a knee to the sternum scrambling for a loose ball. Randal has placed a hot poultice on the boy’s chest, which flushes pink from the heat. Drummer has Snowy’s head cradled in a folded saddle blanket and Snowy Evans’ eyes follow the healer as he speaks, “Before the Something, there was the Always and the Never. Rarely was there the Often; nor was there often the Rarely. The Sometimes was known to occur, with depressing infrequency.”

Drummer tries to get Snowy Evans to drink some water.

Randal comes and stands beside me. “It’s not good. Possible mediastinal shift. Here. A drying agent for later application.”

“How often?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes the agent is applied, unbidden. Sometimes it is invoked.”

“Meaning?”

“More than rarely. Less than often.”

The Indians score again. We are down twelve. “And Reno?”

“I swear an oath to you that I do not know the man.” And he holds his great, chapped, yellow-tinged hands up, like a card dealer. Nothing to hide.

***

Back at the Gateway Academy, I wasn’t much of a student. I mostly think I was singled out by professors because of my size. I came to be known to the basketball faithful as The Viscount of Dunk. Of course, I lack some of that vertical now, but I have the advantage, when I deign to scrimmage with the men these days, of having that sustained court-vision, an ability to see the game unfolding, a brief glimpse of the future, through my heightened coach’s perception of the basketball fates.

No one really thought I had a future in coaching either, but I did comport myself quite well in a North-South competition some years back. A real nail-biter. The name recognition that I got out of that has always gotten me coaching jobs. Gateway finally gave me my own little team out here, “converting” the heathens over to everything that is good and right about our society, things like Christianity and Capitalism and Safe Sex. And the Internet.

***

“Sometimes, me and the wife, you know?” The jug-jug gesture.

One pictures a brave and his squaw, not this old man. The hurried bump and thrust of it, in their gov’t-provided housing, the winter winds screeching white against storm windows. The hunt briefly rejoined – Ooh baby! But both of them thinking of someone else the whole time. “You and the wife, eh?”

“Banging the connubial beaver.”

We’re taking the ball up court. I signal Taos to get a Screen-and-Roll going for Whitehead, who can be trusted to finish. And then I glance back at Randal. “With great frequency?”

Leer and a nod. “Sometimes.”

On the court, Whitehead crashes down, having received an elbow to the nose. A well-placed kick then breaks his collarbone as well. His shooting hand.

I’m up off the bench, screaming at the officials to keep these wet-brained Indians in line.

The Nez Perce referee points out to me that he has already ejected four of their players for undue violence against the white fathers. Then he gives me a technical foul.

***

Drummer hails me as the team comes off the floor for halftime. “Coach Armstrong, sir, I have contact with Reno...”

“But how, son? We’re out of our network.”

Drummer says, “Randal gave me his phone, sir. He said he has unlimited minutes.”

“You’re using an Indian’s cellphone?”

Randal appears, carrying his crock-pot. “Connectivity is the key to the new millennium.”

Drummer says, “You always say to be resourceful sir.”

“He has unlimited minutes out here? That’s a good plan.” My leader’s mind is active, shifting. “Tell Reno to triangulate back on this signal–”

“Sir, Major Reno wants to know where we are. He says they’re in a tough game themselves, that they have a small lead at halftime. Plover is hurt. Crosby. Torn meniscus. Deviated septum. They’re taking a lot of casualties!”

“Zounds but these soft-footed heathens are cunning! Two games – of course.” I remember the hand-drawn signs that guided the team bus here. KOACH ARMSTRONGS TEAM THIS WAY. With a gloved fist, I smite my palm. The vexation! “They could never hope to defeat our best five. They do have such a predator’s intelligence.”

An old Indian in the stands, a less cerebral version of Randal, begins to imitate me. Soon his whole section is doing it, the rhythmic thud of all those fists pounding sounds ominous to the lesser trained among us.

I mull, a leader’s soft, careful ruminations, and look out over the floor, as the halftime show starts up. The Indians’ dance team is doing a Supremes’ number. I think it’s Stop in the Name of Love but can’t tell with the crowd noise. The solemn, dusky girls, with their straight-cut bangs and expressionless faces, are in white and they have white pleather fringes all over their outfits. Just everywhere. It’s really quite impressive.

I say loudly, over the noise, “Drummer, you tell Reno he must hold!”

And Taos asks, “Does anyone have any mayonnaise?”

For the past minute or so, I have been conscious of the crowd throwing things at us. We are hunched in a small circle behind our gym bags. I look at one of the projectiles. It’s an hors d’oeuvre-sized quiche. Dismayed, cautious, I inquire, “You’re eating that?”

We all watch as Taos swallows. From the ground, supine, Snowy Evans asks, “How are they?”

“Good. Good. I think they’re pemican. Some mayonnaise’d be nice though. I eat mayonnaise on about anything,” he concludes, looking around for another.

Drummer adds, “Mine’s salmon. Smoked I think. I just cleaned off the sandy bits.”

Snowy Evans nods, comforted that the rest of the team is happy. I think that Snowy’s slipping away from us. The pink’s faded from his thin chest. I sprinkle the drying agent over him. I am worried about how this will look, the men picking up the quiches and eating them. I mean, we’re white.

They are even drinking Dixie cups of the tepid shameful tap water. Out here on the Res, the water is unpleasant tasting and hard. Very hard.

The men are indeed hungry. I try mine. Nibble at it, just for the energy. Piccolo says, “I think mine’s got truffles in it. There’s definitely a hint of something in there. It’s nice.”

The shame of it.

***

And these Indians are a veritable gold mine of tax incentives. Do you have any idea what the Federal Gov’t will do for a company if it opens an assembly plant on a Res? Of course these Indians will cost a whole lot more than Mexican labor, without much improvement in quality. Neither population seems to benefit much from the educational munificence of the corporate state. But the beauty of the proposition, and this is command level stuff, is that the tax benefits are simply unbelievable when you build whatever sort of a widget factory on a reservation, some product so simple that even an Indian couldn’t wreck it. Bagging keyboards, putting on the little stickers saying that the computers were packaged in the United States.

The halftime show is ending. They have a wheelchair-bound kid lip-syncing Hooked on a Feeling. Mechanically, I demand Drummer’s borrowed phone. I fold it out, punching Reno’s number. I like Mai-tais and Rusty Nails with Reno, and dancing girls, and I have his number well set in memory. But I end up saying, “He doesn’t answer.”

Drummer says, “Sir, there’s no point in calling Reno. He’s in his own game. He can’t come.” Drummer starts giving out the defensive assignments for the second half. “Taos, you take their... And Piccolo, I want you to...”

But I am not listening. The scoreboard. It’s lying or something. We can’t be losing to Indians. Not to Indians. These people are only marginally considered people, never mind basketball players.

“Sir! Coach Armstrong!”

I drag my attention back to Drummer, glad that he has the clipboard. The BJ Thomas song is just finishing.

“Sir, the Indians managed to get Reno’s Gateway bus to their tribal auditorium at the river fork. Reno said that he even saw ours crest the ridge and come into the valley, heading towards him. So he took charge, allowing the game to start thinking that we would be there any minute. The Indians told him so. Now they’re barely holding their own there. We’re in a fight here and we can’t expect relief.”

I whirl, taking in the crowd. There are thousands of them around us now, and we are completely out-manned. It is, of course, as Drummer says, and I respond, “Damnation! But these red bastards would cheat their own grandmother out of her last drink.”

Drummer talks me down from the rostrum of my outrage. “Look. Coach, we need you. We don’t have any height left. We need someone to fill the middle.”

I consider that. With Whitehead and Snowy Evans out, we’ve become a perimeter team. “Verily verily, it is as you say Mr. Drummer. Given the choice between you or me, the team will be better served by my presence. Very astute.”

I move to unplug the crock-pot. The smell has been bothering me and breaking my concentration for some time now. The old Indian Randal is gone.

Perhaps if I can keep these Indians busy long enough, Reno might still be able to pull it off, undermanned as he is. I carefully remove my coat, folding it in on itself, so that the lining will be outermost. I don’t want a stray quiche staining the buckskin. I slide the pocket protector with my good pens down into one of the sleeves. These Indians’ll rob you as soon as look at you.

I realize that it’ll take great motivation for us to hold, and the men will need me. The Viscount of Dunk. The Viscount of Dunk. “Hey Blue, time! Time! Substitution.”

***

We have been running a defensive system the team uses in drills to practice interior defense that’s called Hell-in-a-Bucket. It’s run essentially like a Two-One-Two, except that you need a real defensive presence on one of the corner bases, so that your flanks can’t be turned. I’ve got Taos down there, on the left block. He’s not that big, but he has a great reach-in move. That boy’s a steal waiting to happen. I’m the One, the big man in the middle. If they try and penetrate, I swat the ball out.

The Indian, and this is sad to say, the Indian in America today has no perimeter game. Like most races that haven’t matured, the Indian is inconsistent, unable to get settled and prep the same shot, over and over. The Indian is developmentally flawed, in terms of basketball.

***

Just before I left for the campaign, my darling bride, soft angel that she is, insisted that if I was to be gone any length of time, I would be well served by having my locks shorn. In homage to the baser days of my youth, I have always kept my hair long in the back, although it is nicely trimmed on top and on the sides. As we say, business on top, party in the back.

She had me cut my hair, and I thought that I would feel out of sorts playing. But it’s been amazing. After the first few moments, I got my great limbs limber and the sweat began to flow and it all came back to me. I feel fifteen. I am the most energetic defender that we have, swatting away these Redskins’ pathetic efforts to penetrate, to run plays inside.

But, we are down to next to nothing for offense. We no longer bother doing anything but playing defense, only sallying from our formation to throw up lobs from half court. We tried sending players down the floor alone, on a fast break, to see if they could score. But, at one point, one didn’t come back. And then there were five.

***

TV timeout. Apparently the indigenous cable access channel has sent out a crew, and the Indians are broadcasting the last half. I can’t see where this is going to come off as my finest hour. But, I am hoping that, somehow, by some chance, someone, the Cavalry or someone might be monitoring the broadcast. And send help.

Because we’re done for.

“Coach Armstrong.” Drummer is holding me by the throat, slapping me. “Coach Armstrong.”

I feel good. Fine. I am not winded. But I don’t know what to do. Play, we’ll play. We’ll play and we’ll play. I look at Drummer, he’s trying to get to me, as if I were in a trance or something. “I’m here, Mr. Drummer. We all get introspective at these moments.”

“But that’s the point, sir. The game is almost over. We have to do something. We don’t know what’ll happen when it ends. I don’t think it’ll be good.”

Inventorying the men, I realize that Taos is playing on one leg. Fife is gone. That other guy who never says anything. Looking over at the bench, I think I can see Snowy Evans’ eviscerated body. Or it could be a rifled gym bag. My eyes aren’t good. I nod.

Drummer waits to see if I will add anything. “My plan, my thing is that we’ve got to keep the game going as long as... As long as there’s a game, we have a known. The after-part is unknown and scary. They might get violent.”

“Reno?”

“Yes. Yes, sir. Reno could still come. The longer we keep the game going... The better chance for Major Reno. For Major Reno.”

“We must keep... Yes, for Reno. Even if it’s a small chance.” A horn sounds, signaling the impending start of play. An ATV with Whitehead’s body dragging behind it streaks across the floor. His uniform has been dragged off and he has excrement smeared on his – Well.

“I have this plan, sir. Coach. We bring down the rim. We pull down the rim. With no rim, they’ll have to repair it or get a replacement from the other game. We could slip away during the delay.”

“Slip away?”

“Sir, we haven’t scored in ten minutes.” He pauses, waiting for my protest. But there’s nothing to say. “We go out, sally forth from the serried ranks as it were, the way you always say – they won’t be expecting it, we’ve hardly ventured forth since Donofrio got hurt–”

“Who?”

“Piccolo, sir. Since Piccolo got hurt. You need to get to the basket and tear down the rim. Can you get up that high sir? Because you have to, sir. It’s our only chance.”

I look down at Taos, who is supine, several Air Warrior shoe prints on his chest and legs and then back at Drummer. “If I can... If I can. I am not a young man, gentlemen. I have already crossed mid-life and you would have me dunk.” I raise up and look around. Vague black fumes spill over the court, and I think I smell petrol. The bus, they’ve gotten to the bus. Myself again, I take control, “Well men, there’s nothing else for it. I can see the sense in your reason Drummer. If we make this last run, and tear down their goal, they will have to call the game.”

***

“My name’s not Drummer, sir.”

“But, yes, of course it’s not. You aren’t the Band anymore. You are one of my men. What is it then, Mister Former-Drummer. What is it then, what shall I call you?”

He smiles, aware enough to know there’s not much time. The ref’s signaling for us to inbound. Tiny, wispy fellow, Drummer’ll be bald in a year, if he’s alive; he says to me, “I’m Fischer, sir. Call me Fischer.”

His gums show over his small teeth when he smiles. What is he doing out here, a musician, quelling the West for the big computer companies, forcing himself, through tympanic efforts, to laud these miserable Redmen out of their evil ways and into ours?

“Mr. Fischer then. Mr. Fischer, you will accompany me. I will need a wing for this. If they try and trap me, you need to be releasing on the left-side of the floor.”

“I’d be honored, sir.”

“Call me Coach Armstrong,” I say. “You know what happened to Fife, right?”

Fife was the one who went out and never came back. I picture flayed skin and CUT hamstrings under the bleachers.

And little Drummer swallows, mastering his fear. “It’s our only hope, sir.”

I inbound to Drummer and he, in turn, passes it back when I get to the top of the key. The Indians know that all we’ve been doing is throwing up prayers from there, impossibly long shots, and they are laying back, spread out, hoping to corral the ball before it goes out of bounds. I begin my journey, bouncing my head as I dribble, like a child, I am so excited. There is no one near me, or even reacting, until I cross half-court. I hear a rise from the crowd, and I just pick up Drummer, a blond balding Holstein-colored streak, on my left.

I still have the energy to evade that first defender and then feint a pass to Mr. Drummer. It doesn’t really fool anyone, but, by then, it doesn’t matter. I pick the ball up now and head for the basket. If I’m going to bring down the rim, a traveling call isn’t going to make any difference. Moving through them, I can feel my speed building. The Viscount of Dunk rides again. I am a yellow animal. I am a great blond bird, and I take flight.

At first, I think not. But then, as in a dream, it keeps ranging closer, and my arms extend, and I realize that yes, I am going to make it.

The dunk doesn’t go in. The fates are cruel that way, but I do remain hanging by both hands, in a half pull-up, giving my best full-throated roar, herculean for this moment.

And nothing happens.

I hang there, and the crowd goes quiet watching me hang there. I wonder where Drummer is. What should I do?

But the Indians answer for me. They begin to pull at me, gentle at first, but becoming more insistent. I am looking at the black and white backboard and the little plaque that says, ‘This Equipment Donated by the Gateway Corp.’

We have always given the Indians the very best. I look around a bit, trying to – And I see it, the black and the white in the parking lot. Reinforcement troops. As I am pulled down, I feel the rim coming away from the backboard with me. Screaming, “Reno!!” I feel myself going down. And the blows begin. I try to regain my feet, but there are too many of them, and they are merciless. I think I can hear Drummer screaming as he meets his fate nearby.

The beating is bad, horrible, the worst I’ve ever had. I feel myself drifting out of consciousness. I force my eyes open, trying to get them to focus. The Indians are snipping at my clothes and hair, for souvenirs. I see a hand pick up something white from in front of my face. It is one of my teeth.

Through their feet and legs I look for them, the reinforcements, my only hope. And I see them. The black and the white. Backboards. Complete backboards with rims and stands ready to be wheeled into place. From the ground, it looks like there are hundreds of them. Thousands.

Reno!