During his lifetime, my big brother has chosen and been chosen by six best friends.
Five of them have died in car wrecks.
In Indian theology, there are Four Directions: east, west, north, and south. Sounds expansive, I guess, but it’s really limited. What if I walked south for ten feet and then suddenly turned west and walked for two thousand miles? How would one theologically measure the difference between those two paths? Would those two thousand miles west be more sacred than those ten feet south? And what if I walked in a northwestern direction? Come on, come on, people, there are a hell of a lot more than four directions, even in a metaphorical sense.
And, really, there are maybe three Indians in the whole country who can say, “the Four Directions,” without secretly giggling.
That might be only the second time that somebody has put “Indians” and “giggling” in the same sentence.
I’ve only been to one funeral for one of my brother’s best friends. It was a highly traditional ceremony, so the mournful Indians spent a lot of time giggling.
What if one is not the loneliest number?
What if two is actually the loneliest number? After all, how many times have you had your heart truly broken by a large group of people? You really have to be most wary of the other half of the couples you’ve created. Or been born into.
My friend says she’s only been in romantic love three times. My other friend says he falls in love three times during his commute to work.
At the present moment, I have four dollars in my wallet. What if this were my only wealth? At times in my younger life, my entire wealth was less than four dollars. When it comes to love, is there a difference between four dollars and four million dollars? What did Lear say to his daughter Cordelia, who truly loved him, but was too tongue-tied to say anything other than “nothing” when he asked her what praise she had for him? He said, “Nothing comes from nothing.” That fucker Lear disinherited his daughter because she was less articulate than her sisters. How’s that for love?
I’ve served on the board of trustees for five different charitable organizations. I’ve lost count of the number of times a rich person would only give money if his or her name was publicly printed in bold type. Rich people want buildings to be named after them. Rich people want cities to be named for them. I think the saddest people in the world are rich. Maybe one billion is the loneliest number.
I worry that my big brother will soon lose the sixth best friend of his lifetime. I worry that my brother will outlive everybody. I worry that he’ll be the last person on earth and spend his life wandering among innumerable gravestones. And I’ve just decided that the only structure that should bear anybody’s name is a gravestone.
I bet you all the money in my wallet that my brother is carrying about six dollars in his pocket. That would, indeed, be his entire wealth.
I love my big brother. I love my big brother. I love my big brother. I love my big brother. I love my big brother.
The fourth word in my copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (which I received in 1985 as a high school graduation gift from the Franson family) is aardwolf, a maned, striped mammal of southern and eastern Africa that resembles the related hyenas and feeds chiefly on carrion and insects. Have you ever heard of the aardwolf? It sounds like some mythical creature straight out of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m afraid to search for more information about the thing, though, because I’m sure it’s extinct. One can’t talk about Indians and death and genocide without magically discovering other dead and dying species.
Okay, I wait about three minutes before I type “aardwolf” into my search engine. And, hooray, the aardwolf is still alive! Though it’s the only surviving species of the subfamily Protelinae (whatever that is). And what’s more, this animal is a genocidal eater. According to Wikipedia, the aardwolf feeds mainly on termites and can eat more than 200,000 in a single night. Holy shit! Right now, in Africa, there’s a termite shaman telling his people, “The aardwolf comes at us from every fucking direction.”
It was around closing time, 2 a.m., when I saw Gail Franson in a grocery store in Spokane. This was maybe two years after I graduated from high school. Gail was a few years older, my big brother’s age, and I’d always had a mad crush on her. And there she was. “Hey, that’s Gail,” I said to my big brother, who was stealing and eating food from the fruit department. He didn’t care. But I shouted, “Hey, Gail, I love you! You have great legs!” She blushed and turned away. It probably doesn’t surprise you that I haven’t seen her since that moment. And, oh, just to remind you: it was Gail’s family who gave me that dictionary as a graduation present. What does it say about me that I’ve kept this outmoded dictionary for twenty-seven years?
Like my big brother, I have also had six best friends in my life. All of them are still alive, though I only have contact with two of them.
Who are the six greatest human beings who have ever lived? I bet you that most men would list six other men. And most women would list three women and three men.
Off the top of my head: Crazy Horse. Martin Luther King Jr. Michelangelo. Emily Dickinson. The person who invented the smallpox vaccine. That’s five. I’ll leave the last spot open because I’m sure I’ve forgotten somebody obvious. Four men and one woman. What does that say about me? Of course, I’m just assuming the inventor of the smallpox vaccine is a man. Isn’t that sexist? Well, I look it up and discover that Edward Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine in 1796. What? Do you know how many Indians died from smallpox after 1796? Millions! Just when you think the United States couldn’t have been more genocidal, you discover more evidence.
I’m guessing there are four kids in each of my sons’ classes who haven’t been immunized against whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio. If my sons, Indian as they are, contract whooping cough, diphtheria, or polio from those organic, free-range white children and die, will it be legal for me to scalp and slaughter their white parents?
Three arrows: one in the head, one in the heart, and one in the crotch.
Two thoughts: Is there such a thing as Crazy Horse Boulevard? And if so, have white people built big houses there? In Seattle, when white folks first gentrified this neighborhood, they built big houses on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but they turned the front doors of their homes so their street addresses would not be on MLK Jr. Way.
Among my immediate family, I’m the only one who doesn’t live on the reservation. What does that say about me?
Aardvark is the first word in my ancient dictionary. But aardwolf is a far more interesting word, animal, and concept. That’s how poems get written.
Last week, my sister sent me two questions from her final exam in Native American Literature 101. Yes, my sister is studying my books in her class. And yes, she’s unsure of the answers. I don’t even want to think about the ramifications of this. Sometimes the poem doesn’t need to be written.
Three ironies: I just included the discussion of what should be unwritten in this poem. Most of the people who read this poem will be white people. This poem doesn’t use any form of rhyme or meter, so it’s called a prose poem. It’s called free verse. Yes, an Indian is using free verse to write about that rural concentration camp known as a reservation.
Okay, I think that was four ironies.
My big brother has helped carry five coffins from hearse to longhouse, longhouse back to hearse, hearse to graveside, and graveside to grave.
Here’s a game: Grab a six-sided die. No, roll one red die and one white die together. Read the red die first and refer to the corresponding section of this poem; then read the white die and refer to the corresponding stanza of each numbered section. For example, if you rolled a red 4 and a white 6, you’d be reading this stanza. Now, roll the dice thirty-six times and reorder this poem. Do this as many times as you wish. No matter what happens, remember that my big brother, though he may not admit it, fully expects to bury his sixth best friend in the very near future.
In the first six drafts of this poem, I placed the previous stanza at the end of the poem. But, for some ineffable reason, I decided that it wasn’t correct. But who knows? When you write by instinct, you’re going to get a whole lot of shit wrong.
We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct.
Ineffable. Ineffable. Ineffable. Ineffable.
My big brother’s holy trinity: beer, pizza, and death songs.
Ah, big brother, when was the last time you and I sang together? What happened to our duet?
I’ve only got one birthmark. It’s a heart-shaped mole on my right arm. It’s next to a comet-shaped burn scar. What does this say about me?
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Sherman Alexie is a poet, short story writer, novelist, and performer. He has published 26 books. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie has been an urban Indian since 1994 and lives in Seattle with his family. This poem originally appeared in Tin House #52: Summer Reading.