Z woke up to find some white girl in horn-rimmed glasses – and she wasn’t trying to be hip, here – poking at his arm like she was priming a lawnmower. Girl was maybe eight, all freckled up with a bush of red hair on her scalp. Z picked his head up off the table, trying to hold on to some wispy dream, but it was already gone by the time she opened her mouth full of metal and said to Z, “What’s with the holes?”
“What you say?” he asked her back, still thinking more about the dream he was having than anything happening in the real world. A gust of wind blew tiny grains of gravel off the road. They pattered against the side of the makeshift kiosk, and one grain sailed past the plywood and into Z’s eye. That woke him up.
“What’s with the holes? They all have holes.”
“Yeah, so? They always got holes. You ain’t ever seen this stand?” Z said to the girl, rubbing his eye.
“No, I’m new. Did you make them?”
“No. Authentic Cherokee,” Z said, reaching forward to tap the posterboard sign hanging off the front of the wooden table. The girl didn’t look down to read it.
“So why do they have holes?” the girl asked.
“Cuz I put ’em there. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“No, I’m new,” I said. “My dad’s unpacking from the big orange truck down the street. Why aren’t you in school? And why’d you put–”
“Cuz I don’t go to school no more. School is for jackasses. I’m out here making that money. Why the hell your old man want to move here? This town about as exciting as a dead cat before the crows come.”
“He’s not old! He’s thirty seven and a half. And you’re not supposed to say ‘ass.’”
Z was already tired of talking to the girl. She obviously wasn’t there to buy. He stretched his arms and looked around. Everyone at work or in school. Even tumbleweeds had better places to roll. Just another Thurday on Main Street. Why we even stay open in the middle of the day if nobody gonna buy nothing? Z asked himself but never answered.
“I like this little Native American. He’s cool.”
“Him? Yeah, he cool, ain’t he?” The carving was one of the small, cheap ones, only twenty bucks. Maybe her Dad gave her some spending money to keep her busy.
“But why’d you put a hole in his chest? It ruins it.”
“No it don’t. Look here.” Z cut a length off the ball of twine sitting on the stand behind all the wooden figures, then he threaded it through the Indian’s chest hole and tied a knot, making a loop. “See? Now you got a necklace, you got a bracelet, you can carry him around. See? Won’t lose him or nothing.” The girl put the string around her neck and looked down at the basswood Indian in her pale fingers.
Z eyed the figure. Whitepaw fit more detail into that little Indian’s face than any other carver would ever dream to match. And here he is selling it for twenty bucks to some ginger brat on the side of the road in Bumfuck, Texas. Shit, he ain’t even selling it. I am. He only passed out in the truck again. Even if Z thought Whitepaw was a dumb old drunk with a lucky gift, he had to respect the wrinkly old bastard for living simple and not trying to exploit the darker side of his talent.
Z ran his slim hands along his scalp. His mom had re-done his cornrows the day before, but she’d braided them too tight. The pain was giving Z a headache, and his customer wasn’t helping. She said, “How old are you?”
“What? Fifteen. And three quarters. You want to buy that guy or not?”
“My brother is sixteen. You should be friends. Do you play football? My brother does and he’s the best at it.”
“Do I look like I play football?”
“No, you’re too skinny.”
“I heard my dad say there weren’t any black people out here.”
“Man, what the hell is that supposed to mean?” The girl just shrugged her shoulders. “Tell him not to fret, you’re looking at half the black population in this here town.”
“You mean a third.”
“You, your mom, your dad. That’s three. One out of three is a third, so you’re a third of the black people. My dad says I’m going to be a mathematician.”
Z’s face twisted and he looked away from her, down the empty, flat stretch of road that maybe never ended. He took a breath and looked back at the girl in the horn-rimmed glasses.
“Look, your daddy give you some money? Only twenty bucks for your boy there.”
“Dad doesn’t let me carry money because I always lose it. My name’s Elizabeth, what’s yours?”
“Man, then why you coming up here and waking my ass up? Gimme him back,” he said, and leaned over the table to pull the loop off her neck. He set the figure back on the table next to the other cowboy, Indian, buffalo, and horse carvings, every last one of them so expressive and detailed nobody would believe Whitepaw used just a single old pocket knife to make them. Except of course for the holes. Whitepaw wouldn’t – or maybe couldn’t – drill the holes. Z looked back up at the girl. She was trying to look tough, but her eyes were starting to swim already.
“Hey. Look, it’s cool. Elizabeth? I’m Z.”
“Your name is just ‘Z’? That’s weird,” she sniffed and tilted her head back to look down her nose at him.
“You calling me weird?” Z laughed. “Girl, get outta here. Tell your dad to give you twenty bucks if you want to come back. Go on now, for real.”
“Make me, Z,” she said, real snotty, as she ran away anyway.
The driver side door to the truck opened up behind Z and a glass bottle fell onto the cement. Whitepaw was up.
The old man stretched his arms then rubbed his temple with his deformed white hand, his carving hand. “Should talk nice to white people. They have money,” he said.
“Not that one. I thought you the one always saying money don’t fill a man anyway.”
He rubbed his wrinkled hands together, milk on clay, and gave Z one of those looks that either came from some secret, enlightened thought, or the fact that he was still tipsy. “I have one for you to finish tonight.” He stepped to the bed of his beat up Chevy and rummaged in a box, pulling out a little cowboy, a handsome one, like a hero out of some old western flick. He had a slight frame, but a broad face with compressed features, the kind of face that dared you to take your best swing at it – that is, if the man wasn’t eight inches tall and made of wood. Whitepaw handed the hero over to Z. The figure was stained in varnish, giving the wood a lively brown glow. Perfect again. Z saw the pistol in the figure’s hand.
“I told you to stop giving them weapons!”
“Use the clamps,” Whitepaw said, ruffling through another box in the bed of his truck.
“Yeah, yeah. Maybe you should ‘finish’ your own shit one of these days.”
“Uh-huh, you just too pussy,” Z looked for a smile, but only saw Whitepaw pulling a bottle of Bacardi Gold out of the bed. He uncorked it with his white hand and drank with his red. Whitepaw never smiled.
“Momma, I’m home.” Z set the cowboy down on the kitchen table and took the jug of Hawaiian Punch out of the fridge. “Where you at?”
“Working, baby,” she hollered out from the laundry room. Great, now I’ll be sweeping up hair all night again. Z’s mother ran a barbershop out of their laundry room and babysat to pay the bills. To help, Z chipped in half of the one hundred dollars he earned from Whitepaw every week.
He looked out the window at the sun slowly dipping in the sky, then grabbed the cowboy figure and walked with it and the Hawaiian Punch out the back screen door, through the weedy backyard, and into the corrugated metal shed. Next to the rusted heap of a lawnmower was a length of two by six laid over two sawhorses. Z laid the cowboy flat on the plank and pulled the string of the lightbulb overhead. He took another look out at the setting sun and figured he had about ten minutes.
The rubber pads on the clamps closed down on the cowboy’s elbows, pinning him tightly to the plank. Z grabbed the extension cord that ran out to the house to power the lightbulb, and he plugged in the electric drill Whitepaw had given him to “finish” his work. He took a swig of punch and waited. Any minute now.
It had been a nice enough day, but the shed always captured heat without ever letting it go, and now Z was sweating. He pulled the trigger on the drill a few times, listening to the whir of metal. What would happen if I just did it now? He remembered how clear Whitepaw had been about the rules when he started working for him six months back. Break any of them once and he said that was it – back to joblessness and his mom riding him to keep busy every day. Whitepaw had just drifted into town from lord knows where, and everybody in school was talking about the prehistoric Indian man with the sickly white skin running halfway up to his elbow on one hand. Not that any of the other kids talked about this to Z himself, but he had overheard it all over the halls when he wasn’t too busy getting pushed into lockers and spit on. Soon after, Z had dropped out and found the man at his door the very next day. Z’s mom was relieved her son had gotten a job so fast. She hadn’t minded him dropping out. She knew about his problems with the other kids and was already a firm believer in self-education. With some books and tapes from the library, she had spent the last two years teaching herself to be damn near fluent in Spanish, and had just started on conquering French. The one thing she would not tolerate from her son was idleness. To top it off, she thought the stoic Indian would be a strong male role model for Z, but that was before everyone found out about his weakness for spirits. Looking down at the wooden cowboy, Z figured there was no sense in breaking the rules Whitepaw had told him that day – indulging in a little curiosity wasn’t worth losing the only job anyone in town was likely to give him. It was moot anyway, the cowboy had just opened his mouth in a yawn and started blinking his eyes.
The figure tried to sit up, but found his arms clamped down. He wrestled and squirmed, trying to break free, but it was no use. He looked up, saw Z, and eyeballed him with the toughest look he could muster from his position.
“Hey, partner. What’s the idea?” he said in a gruff drawl.
“Ain’t no idea, man.”
“This is a dream. Ain’t it.” The cowboy wasn’t asking.
“Just chill.” Z stepped over him, the drill aimed straight down at his chest.
“Back off, boy. Dream or not – you want to fight, you make it a fair one.”
“Sorry.” Z pressed the trigger again, making the drill spin in a burst, then he rested the static bit on the cowboy’s solar plexus. There was a sound like someone snapping their fingers, and Z dropped the drill. Blood dripped out of his thumb. He looked closer to find a round splinter lodged under the skin. The cowboy had his gun angled up by his wrist, aiming despite the rest of his arm, which was still pinned down by the clamp. “You shot me!”
“More where that came from if you want to walk that road, partner. Waco Bill don’t suffer fools who mean him harm. Go ask the redskins at the Neches River.”
Z looked down the cement floor to find that the drill bit had snapped in half. Shit. He ran out of the shed and back into the house, rummaging through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom until he finally found the tweezers. He grabbed a Band-Aid too and ran back out to the shed, closing the corrugated metal door behind him.
“Back for more are you?”
Z ignored the little man and dug for the wooden bullet with the tweezers. Now he was looking forward to finishing the little man. Most of the men just begged for mercy, and Z always felt a little bad about doing it. He had watched as every figure broke down and cried while the drill went in, coughing up saw dust, and then freezing again like they are during the day, only permanently. Z threw down the tweezers. It was no use; the splinter was buried right behind his thumbnail.
“Why the fuck you do that, man? Now it’s stuck!”
“Serves you right for pointing a gun at a grown man. And Waco Bill don’t take kindly to that sort of language.” He leveled the gun towards Z again.
“You better not shoot me again.” Z looked at Waco Bill. He was perfectly poised and didn’t show a trace of weakness. How the hell such a tiny guy get so tough?
“That’s up to you, partner. Release me and we’ll talk man to man. Waco Bill can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Go ask the Rangers under Major Augustine.”
“Yeah, and lose my job too.” Z opened the door and walked back towards the house. Whitepaw better pay for a new bit. Not my fault he gave me that cheap piece of crap. I’mma tell him, too. And how many times I tell him no guns? Shit, he better have another bit to bring over tonight – hardware store closed by now. Better not expect me to hide him all night. He opened the back door to find his mother on the phone, scissors still in her hands. She looked up at Z and whispered into the phone, “Hold on, he’s here now.” She held the phone against her shoulder and said, “Z, baby, I don’t know how to tell you this. After you came home today, there was an accident. A bad accident on the road, baby.”