She puffs smoke and bounces on the tips of her toes like a boxer warming up in her corner or like she’s cold or nervous. Yellow marbles dot the ends of two braids that arch over her head like horns. She looks like a big yellow jacket, the nastiest and angriest kind of wasper. Yellow and black, might attack.
“You Indian or something?” she says, extending her arm alongside his to compare skin tone. Hers isn’t too much darker than his.
“Dots or feathers?” he says.
” ‘Cause I am too,” she says, ignoring the question. “Creek. Got the card and everything.” She nods affirmatively. “Grandma’s full blooded. Makes me a quarter.”
She’s as much Creek as he is, although he’s also half Cherokee. She’s becoming more attractive by the minute. The sun illuminates the turtle-shell clouds golden from underneath. He points at it and she looks, blowing smoke through her nostrils and tapping ash on the gray planking.
“What you doin’ here with all these old folks? Ain’t nothing happens here till late at night. You gotta car?”
He points. It’s smoldering blue, almost black but growing shinier as it gets darker.
“Ooh, that’s pretty,” she says. “That a Lincoln ain’t it?”
“Showl is,” he hears himself say, parroting the distressed motorist.
A red sedan rumbles around the corner, muffler growling, hesitates, then pulls into the lot. An older black couple get out, climb the short steps and go in, arms around each other, laughing. She’s tall and slim and he’s short and stocky with a grey moustache, wearing an OU ball cap.
“My name’s Jordan. Jordan Coolwater. I’m a columnist for the Trib.”
They shake. “Yolanda. Ledbetter. My friends call me YoYo. You can call me Yolanda.”
This catches him off -guard and she snorts.
“Just joking,” she says, slaps her thigh. “Shoulda seen the look on your face. You full already? Are you really an old bluesman?”
“Twenty-five and already a bluesman, yes, ma’m. How old are you?” he says.
“Old enough,” she says, flutters her eyelashes at him. “I ran track in Arkansas.”
“You look it,” he says.
“I blew out my knee and they dropped my scholarship,” she says and lifts a knee. “That’s where they cut on me.”
He grimaces and turns away from the surgical pink scar, a vertical slash along the knee. He can’t even stomach the injury replays on TV. He wants to admonish her for smoking like his uncle does to him, but they grow quiet. The locusts have shut down, too. Th en one starts up, another joins in and soon every tree around is a shaking maraca. Jordan stretches his arms above him, tiptoes, touches the roof of the porch. He guesses he did come a little early. But how was he supposed to know? He stifles a yawn. It’s the alcohol. Second-wind time.
“Can we sit in your car for a minute?” she asks.
He pops the trunk and grabs a couple beers and unlocks her side. He gets in and starts it for the AC, plugs the Zeppelin back in, punches the equalizer. Red and green dots jump along the face.
He turns it down low:
“With a purple umbrella and a fty-cent hat
Livin’, lovin’, she’s just a woman …”
He shows her how to adjust her seat. There are about a dozen controls: seat down or up, back or front, tilt. It must have been ahead of its time in the ’70s. She plays with it a while and gets settled. They look ahead to where the sun has sank; the horizon is a vivid mauve, but fading. YoYo looks around, rubs the velvet, the fake-wood paneling. She has a smile on her face and is acting like she could get used to the car. Flips the visor to see if the lighted mirror works. It does. She checks herself out, widens her eyes, bares her bright teeth. Then she snaps it shut and, leaning toward him, reaches into her tight pocket and withdraws a joint.
“You get high?” she asks, running it back and forth underneath her nostrils. “This is some potent shit. Homegrown. But it does the trick.”
So this is why she wants to sit in the car. She is smiling at him, holding it in the air. He guns the motor to give the AC some juice. He doesn’t smoke much dope, has bought one entire quarter-ounce sack his whole life. Never failed a drug test. He might have a toke or two when he’s drunk, but, even as he tries to explain it away to himself, he knows he’s going to smoke it with her.
She lights it above a little red Bic. The twisted end flames and glows red, the smoke seeps out serpentine, a seed pops with a small flare as she sucks. Oh, what the hell, he thinks, relax and enjoy it. So he turns up the music a little, eases the seat back, and hits it every time. It’s harsh, scorches the back of his whisky-coated throat, but he nearly chokes himself holding it in as long as he can. They sit there as it grows dark, under the big oaks. He only gets out to get beer from the trunk. Now for sure he can’t take his eyes off her, she seems so fascinating. Her smooth skin, cute face with the high cheekbones. Long lashes above slanted eyes. Mysterious smirk like she knows something he doesn’t. He keeps staring at her to see what it is that makes her black besides the skin, which could be anybody’s. The hair? But it looks silky. He reminds himself she’s Indian, too. “Who was your grandma?” he asks as she takes another puff.
She holds up a finger for him to wait, her cheeks balloon, then she exhales. Smoke rolls out like clouds before a thunderstorm. Nothing wrong with her lungs, he thinks. All that track. “Maxine Tigertail. She still alive. Wildcat Junction.”
Jordan thinks about this as a swarm of sparrows wheel and swoop over the fence line in silhouette against the sunset. They stay amazingly together in formation, like an aerial stunt-show team, then zoom away.
There are many Tigertails. Some work at the tribal headquarters, and their name or picture is always in the tribal paper doing something magnanimous like cutting a ribbon with enormous scissors or holding up a giant cardboard check. The photographers usually stand 10 yards back instead of filling up the frame so all the figures are tiny, wearing their suits and ties. Ninety percent of their constituents have never donned a suit and tie.
“How’d you become Ledbetter?”
“Momma married a Ledbetter. You know there’s a ton of those.” He remembers a few Ledbetters from school. They were neighbors with some when he lived with Granny.
“I knew a CoCo Ledbetter in Muskogee,” he says.
“That would be my cousin. About my age? Yea tall?”
“Yep, that’s her.”
They’ve smoked it to a roach. He lets down her window so she can flick it. Thankfully, she doesn’t eat it like he’d seen people do. He pounds his chest with his mouth open and more smoke leaks out. Full to the gills. He inches closer to her figuring now or never and leans in and they kiss for a minute or two. He rubs the tip of his index finger lightly along the raised welt of her scar after they break away.
“There’s a lot more where that came from,” she says.
This was going to be less complicated than he thought.
“The smoke I mean.”
They both laugh at this for an unusually long time, he thinks. Her lemon-scented perfume slices through the burnt-leaf smell.
“No, really, I don’t want any. That there should hold me. But thanks,” he says, thinking she probably wants to sell him a bag. She must think he’s rich, with the Lincoln and newspaper job.
“It’s free. Right down the road here, growing wild.”
He takes another drink, looks around. Next to the shack in back is a tumbling stack of hickory split into fire stove lengths. It hits him that this is the smokehouse where the brisket and ribs are cooked. As if on cue the owner in the white apron walks out carrying a platter of steaming meat. It seems Jordan can smell the smoked food from inside the car. Suddenly, he’s powerful hungry.
“Oh, well, thanks, Jordan,” Yolanda begins, and opens the door to get out.
The light and buzzer come on. He can’t let her get away that easy.
“Hey,” he says, getting his attitude back. “Let’s check that out if you want. I know a guy who’d probably buy some if you’re not bullshitting me.”
She puts her fine leg back in the car. “Dang, that’s a heavy-ass door,” she says, shutting it.
He passes the bottle. She takes a swig without delay. Yep, she’s got a little Indian in her. She grimaces and waves her hand back and forth in front of her mouth. He figures there’s a mountain of time before 2 in the morning, which is the action he wants to see. Right now there’s four cars in the lot and no live music, just a few brisket eaters and beer drinkers. He’s taken a liking to YoYo, so it wouldn’t hurt to drive around a little with her, show off the Lincoln.
She’s got the mirror down again, patting her hair, smacking her lips.
“You look good,” he says. “Smell good, too. Don’t worry.”
“Thank you,” she says, shuts the visor. Good manners, he thinks.
“Where’s this place at? I ain’t gonna get shot am I?”
“Hell naw. You think I’d take you to a place like that? It’s just up here along the creek. I found it one day fishing with my brother. He pulled some up and dried it out in the oven.”
YoYo says, “Clear,” and gravel crunches when they pull onto the road. She fiddles with the seat some more, getting comfy. There’s still plenty of light, unlike in winter when after sundown it’s pitch black within minutes. He turns down the music and hears the locusts buzzing, crickets chirping and tree frogs burping. The pot plays tricks on him. It seems he is flying but when he looks at the speedometer the orange-tipped needle is at 10. His face feels flushed and by that feeling knows his eyes are red. He stops the car and looks in the mirror, but can’t tell. He leans over and sticks his face in YoYo’s.
“Are my eyes shot?”
She looks him in the eye, bobs her head like a boxer to get another view.
“They ain’t crystal clear, put it that way. It don’t matter, who cares?”
She rubs his leg up and down. He feels the stirrings of a hard-on, turns the tunes back up, drives on. He smells dope on his fingers every time he puffs on his cigarette, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth opposite YoYo. It’s cool this evening, a much-appreciated respite from the steaming day. Even at night it’s usually hot and sticky. Growing up in the Creek Indian housing projects, they were officially the last ones to cave in and buy an air-conditioner. They were also the last to get cable and a telephone. Carpet was a pipe dream. The little window unit only cooled the kitchen and living room and that was after hanging a blanket to cut off the hall and back bedrooms.
The jump across the ditch and wade through Johnson grass. He’s right behind her, wondering what the heck he is doing walking into the woods with a strange blakc girl (Indian, too, he reminds himself), stoned drunk, hunting a marijuana stand.
He begins to wonder how much dope YoYo smokes. She doesn’t look like a typical stoner.
“Do you smoke a lot?” he asks her. She holds up the cigarette and arches her eyebrows. He shakes his head.
“More than I should, probably,” she says. “I never smoked when I ran. But this shit’s free. You try living out here, stuck in the country, nothin’ to do.”
He thinks if they got together maybe he could wean her off it. But damned if she doesn’t reach down and pull out another.
They enter the thick shade canopy that leads to the creek. Th ey say Oklahoma’s No. 1 cash crop is marijuana. Th ere was a story about it in the Tulsa paper. When he was a kid they saw a big patch
by the side of the road. Grandpa said, “Looky there,” and pulled over. He said it was from people throwing “wacky tobaccky” out the window with seeds in them. It was ironic because when Grandpa rolled his Velvet, folks always thought he was twisting a joint. A pickup full of teenagers pointed and laughed outside a QuikTrip once while Grandpa, oblivious, arms braced on the steering wheel, filled an OCB paper and rolled it, slowly licked it back and forth.
They cross the low-water dam, water gushing arcs on both sides. YoYo has her arm hanging out the window and gets some on it.
“Go on up a little ways and stop off to the side,” she says.
They stand at the trunk and take another whisky shot apiece.
“It’s dark in there,” he says. “I don’t have a flashlight.”
“Simple,” she says and sparks her lighter, holds it like a torch. The flame wobbles across her face.
They jump across the ditch and wade through Johnson grass. He’s right behind her, wondering what the heck he is doing walking into the woods with a strange black girl (Indian, too, he reminds himself), stoned drunk, hunting a marijuana stand. She reaches for his hand as they duck under a limb, and instantly they’re cloaked in darkness.
She holds aloft the lighter, looks around. “C’moan,” she says.
With every step they crunch twigs, snap branches. Th e going is fairly easy, though; in fact it’s a relief to get out of the open into some secrecy. She heads straight for a while, then veers east, toward the creek. A barn owl hoots eight notes from across the road: “What’s up with you, what’s up with youuuu?” Locusts have quit, but crickets pick up the chorus. It smells damp and like hay.
“Do you ride horses?” she asks. He can only see her heart-shaped rump in front of him.
“Hardly ever. They take off and won’t mind when I try to get them to stop.” She laughs.
“They know you’re scared. We got three of them: Blaze, Smoky, and Peaches. I ride Smoky every day. Over to the club sometimes.” He envisions a horse tethered to the porch, like something out of Gunsmoke. He laughs.
“Damn, you are country, aren’t you? Where do you keep them?”
“We got 32 acres. Let’s take a break,” she says. They hug and kiss, he feels her stiff tongue in his mouth. It tastes like Seagram’s. He rubs up and down her back, squeezes her bottom, traces an eyebrow with a thumb. She doesn’t resist. She lights another joint.
“How much farther?” he croaks, cheeks full of air, smoke oozing from mouth and nose.
“Right up ahead. Got to be quiet, though.”
They start off again. He hears a buzzing he realizes is coming from inside his head. He laughs out loud, stops, and takes a drink.
“Shhhh,” she says.
He catches up to her. She has the lighter going again.
“We’re here. There it is,” she whispers, pointing.
“Why are we whispering?”
“Shhhh!” she answers, irritated.
It stands out even in the dark: a circular patch in a clearing obscured from above by foliage. She walks to the edge and squats next to a plant, pulls it with both hands. She has to tug a few times, then he hears roots tear. It comes out and she bangs it on the ground to break off clots of dirt, roots dangling like white worms. She raises it to her face and inhales.
There is the unmistakable skunky smell, the leaves bend and hang down like bouncing tarantula legs. It’s much heavier than it looks, he thinks, stroking it through his hands, sniffing it.
“My brother call this here Stilwell Spider Tops,” she whispers, hands it to him.
There is the unmistakable skunky smell, the leaves bend and hang down like bouncing tarantula legs. It’s much heavier than it looks, he thinks, stroking it through his hands, sniffing it. She’s bent over pulling plants as fast as she can, grunting, throwing them to the side. He strolls through the head-high growth, yanks one up. He breaks off a stalk and gets a fragrant, sticky substance on his hands. She tells him he’s supposed to pull it out at the base.
“Like this,” she says, rips up another.
She wastes no time, going stalk to stalk, uprooting plants until she’s got about two dozen in a heap. She’s breathing heavy. He whips his back and forth, making zipping sounds.
“OK,” he says, “fuck it. Let’s get out of here.”
“A couple more,” she says, then collects her booty.
“What you going to do with those?” he asks.
“Take them home,” she says, which he gathers involves his vehicle, but by this time he doesn’t care, just wants out. “I’m coming back after all these motherfuckers tomorrow, watch,” she says. The dope is making him paranoid. He pictures electric fences, poles with tips sharpened into picks, jungle traps that sling you upside down, potheads with pistols. He hears splashing and thinks someone is coming after them, but it’s only the rushing creek. A bullfrog croaks. They tramp back the way they came and she lays the plants in longways behind the ice chest. He gets a beer out of the cooler. The ice has turned to mainly water, but it’s still cold, so he empties the other case into it so he’ll have something to carry into the club at 2.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 5. March 1, 2013.