My uncle is the best Indian artist in the state of Oklahoma – more famous than I’ll ever be–has ﬂown around the world and visited many countries – namely Spain – knows intimately the best restaurants and private clubs in the biggest cities, and drinks and carouses with well-known actors and entertainers – Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson among them.
He sat across from me at the small kitchen table, tapping cigar ashes on the ﬂoor and turning up the bottom of a big smoke-green wine bottle. He drank, grimaced, continued his monologue.
“Johnson L. Freebird’s my name, wild women and booze is my game,” he blurted, then stomped the linoleum with a shiny leather boot.
Since he was my uncle I obviously knew his name but until then did not exactly know what was his game.
“Wild women and booze,” he snorted again, nostalgically. With a ﬂick of his tongue he puffed a cloudy grey smoke ring. It lingered perfectly in front of his sweaty face, and he blew a smaller one into that, and yet a smaller one into that. He caught and held my eye to make sure I had seen.
I had seen all right. I had seen and heard that and a lot more in the hour or so since he had walked in. I was sitting alone, doodling in my sketch pad at the kitchen table when a silver ﬂash caught my attention outside the window. Incredibly, an eighteen-wheel semi-truck had just stopped in front of the house. Incredible because we lived in a small Indian housing project on a small street in a tiny town in eastern Oklahoma. The interstate was thirty miles away. It looked absurd – this glittering, rumbling truck, which blocked the sun and dwarfed the newly planted trees of our neighborhood.
I thought the driver may have been lost and was about to go out to ask when a cowboy boot ﬂew out the passenger’s window. There was a pause, then another boot whirled out like a chopper blade. Then came a grocery sack with jeans and T-shirts spilling out. The window went up, the door swung open, and someone
jumped to the ground, clutching brown paper sacks in each hand.
We stared at each other through the glass of the door. He stood in the grass in white sock feet, bluejeans and a plain red T-shirt, which was tucked in tightly around a huge teardrop belly that sagged over his waistline. His wavy black hair snaked over his shoulders, down front and back, and a blue bandana looped around his forehead. As the truck backed away, he took a long pull from one of the sacks and it was then that I recognized him. For it was in this one particular gesture – that of bottle being upturned, held and returned – that I knew my uncle: the famous Indian artist Johnson L. Freebird.
At the table, he said he wanted to hear some music. My grand-parents lived on a ﬁxed income; we were the only Indians in the projects who didn’t have color TV, carpet, air conditioning or a telephone. But a radio – we had that covered. And since my grand- parents were out in the country “riding around” as they called it, I played host. I turned on the radio at the kitchen counter.
“Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb!” he yelled as if I were on the third ﬂoor of a mansion instead of a few feet away.
I switched it to a.m. I wasn’ t yet nineteen but knew that much at least.
“Hank Senior and Merle Haggard!”
I found a station. A sawing ﬁddle, twangy banjo, and scratchy whiny voice leaked out. I returned to my chair and ﬁnished my glass of cheap wine, which tasted like cherry Kool-Aid with gasoline added. I was a relatively new drinker but had been around enough drunks to know that if my uncle were a slot machine at this moment, he’d be all ringing and buzzing, sirens ﬂashing.
He leaned across the table and reﬁlled my jelly glass. He wore a pair of black-framed, Army-issue glasses – the kind of basic frames you get at the clinic if you can’t afford something else. They were too small for his broad, shiny face, so his bushy black eyebrows jutted over them, jumping and darting with his various drunken expressions: eyes owl-wide when staring at me to assert a fact – that he’d drunk with Johnny Paycheck; one eye closed in a wink – when he talked of the Mexican woman he’d slept with in “Whar-Ez,” Mexico; or eyes slitted with arms across chest – as he sat disbelieving anything I had to say.
The table was already littered with wet cigarette ashes, butts, overﬂowing ashtrays, plastic wrappers, an empty cigar package, crunched beer cans, and the wine and whisky he held as he jumped off the truck. It looked as if a party of ﬁve had just left. Just the smell of whisky almost made me vomit, so I just sipped wine, smoked cigarettes, and drank beer. And listened.
Over the next hour I gathered that he had just left Tulsa, which was about an hour’s drive away, after selling three of his paintings. Unable to get a ride hitching, he’d made it to a truck stop where he approached the ﬁrst rig he saw and offered the driver ﬁfty dollars to take him to our house to see his sister, Florine, my grandmother. The driver initially refused but Johnson was standing in our front yard less than an hour later after he upped the offer to a hundred on the condition that the trucker stop at a liquor store.
“Who’s the most famous Indian artist?” he bellowed at me now, for the fourth time.
“Jerome Tiger?” I said.
“Hah! Jerome Tiger, Fred Beaver, Solomon McCombs. Where they at now? I’ ll tell you where, they’re six foot under, that’s where. Where am I? I’m right here sitting in front of you, that’s where!”
He raised his bottle.
“Now drink up, son, so you can say you drank with Johnson L. Freebird, April 15th, 1983, in this one-horse town they call Okay, Oklahoma.”