The bell above the door jangled when the couple entered the gift shop, the man and the woman blinking against the sudden absence of sunlight. Their eyes were slow to adjust to the peaceful dimness, pupils slowly dilating until the shadowy blobs mutated into discernible shapes: a shelf of history books and guides, a spinning rack with glossy postcards, the teenaged clerk slouching behind the counter with his dark eyes dancing sleek across the pages of a comic book.
“Phew,” said Walt. “It’s hot in here. Would it kill them to turn on the air conditioning? Some of us aren’t used to this damn desert.”
Vicki shushed him and patted his damp, clammy arm. The clerk’s eyes flicked up and landed on the couple like a pair of black flies. Walt wiped beads of sweat from his brow along with a thick smear of desert dust. He rubbed his hand along the side of his khaki shorts, leaving a somber orange streak.
“Oh, Walt,” said Vicki. “Don’t do that. You’re getting your clothes all dirty.”
She gestured at the grimy smudge with her pinky finger. “Oh, give me a break, would ya, Vick? I’ll change before we go to dinner. We have plenty of time.”
That’s why they were there putzing around the tiny souvenir shop, passing their excess time before they met up with their daughter and her husband. Sandy and Rick were the reason Walt and Vicki had chosen Arizona as their post-retirement getaway.
“We’ll kill two birds with one stone then,” Walt had said. “Much more efficient that way.”
“And we can go to the Grand Canyon then,” said Vicki. “I’ve always wanted to go there, ever since I was a little girl. My grandpa had this painting of the Grand Canyon that a friend of his did, hanging on the wall in his den. It was beautiful, all these purples and oranges and browns. Really lovely. I’d love to see it before I die.”
Walt had nodded and said, “Mmhmm,” but Vicki could tell he hadn’t really been listening. Vicki pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head. They were a gift to herself, rounded squares with big white frames. When she looked in the mirror, she imagined herself as are incarnation of Audrey Hepburn. She had worn them to the office on her last day, her dyed hair pinned in a bun at the back of her head. Vicki picked up a tiny statue of a Navajo warrior that stood on a shelf. The warrior’s dress and weapons were inlaid with little turquoise rocks, and he stood completely erect. He stared out into the distance with grave eyes. Vicki read the printed card that was tied to the statuette’s arm with twine.
“Walt, read this,” she said.
“Ah, I know that one,” Walt said after a moment. “Hold on.” Walt reached into his back pocket and pulled out the glossy guidebook they’d bought at the gas station the day before. He flipped to the blank pages in the back and jotted the folktale down in a neat, deliberate hand. Walt was proud of his knowledge of Navajo culture. Once the couple had made the decision to vacation in Arizona, bought the plane tickets and everything, he had enrolled in a class about Native American legends and folklore.
It wasn’t a real class, Vicki always reminded her husband when he got too caught up in it, just a weekly evening event for bored retirees and bored housewives held at the rec center and taught by an equally bored instructor from the community college. But still, Walt was the best student, as he frequently boasted to Vicki, the most enthusiastic pupil, often approaching the young instructor after class to request recommendations for further reading and chatting with him long after everyone else had left.
He was even able to convince Vicki to accompany him a few times, despite her being quite adamant about getting more than enough knowledge from reading Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mystery series.
“Besides,” Vicki had said to her husband, “how beneficial will that class really be for our trip? Didn’t you say the class covers folktales from a bunch of different tribes?”
“Oh, they’re not that different from one another,” Walt had said, waving her off. “One tribe has a story about a raven, and another story has the same story with a coyote. Tomato, to-mah-to.”
Yes, Walt was proud of how informed he had become in his late life, how much he’d grown and changed in his six and half decades of existence. After a few too many Scotches one night, he told Vicki about being a kid and playing cowboys and Indians with his brothers and the other boys in the neighborhood. The boys on the Indian team wore bands of leather around their heads onto which they taped and pinned synthetic feathers, the kind one might get in a plastic bag at a craft store.
Those games always ended the same, with the cowboys drawing their revolvers and shooting all them Injuns in the back as they turned to flee. “That was sure wrong of me, Vick,” he had said to her, his eyes hot with tears that he somehow managed to keep from running down his face. “That was pretty terrible.”
“You were just boys,” Vicki had replied, gently taking the perspiring glass of Scotch out of his curled hand. She let him sit there on the couch next to her, sniffling. She hoped he’d stop before Wheel of Fortune came on.
It wasn’t until Marlon Brando turned down his Oscar that Walt started saying Native Americans instead of Indians. He was twenty-one, he told his wife, when Sacheen Littlefeather, adorned in the traditional wear of her culture, gracefully waved the little gold statuette away. Walt leaned toward the flickering screen, stunned by her quiet sorrow as she spoke through a smattering of boos from the audience. He felt her, right through the screen, right through the hundreds of miles between them, through the mountains and the forests and the lakes, across time zones.
Walt wandered over to the other side of the tiny shop. Dust danced in the fading desert sunlight that invaded the otherwise quiet dark, slanting through the few narrow windows cut into the walls at uneven intervals. He made eye contact with the clerk sitting behind the counter and nodded, one sharp dip of the head.
“This your place, son?” The clerk looked back down at his comic book and drew his eyebrows together. “My father owns it. I just work here.”
“You’re just here holding down the fort then, eh, Chief?”
Vicki shook her head no at her husband. He pretended he didn’t see her, but she saw the way his eyes caught hers for a millisecond before he turned away.
“Say, listen,” Walt continued. He drifted up to the clerk and clapped a large, meaty hand on his shoulder. Vicki saw the clerk flinch, but Walt gave no sign that he had noticed.
What he did notice was the name badge pinned to the clerk’s chest: Hello! My name is Tim Begaye. How may I help you?
“Tim−may I call you Tim? − I know that your people have been through a lot of shit over the years−“
“Centuries,” Tim corrected.
“And I just wanted to say that I’m real sorry for that, you know?”
“And you and your folk just have to keep on keeping on. Keep having your pow-wows and whatever else it is you do. Don’t let ‘em bring you down.”
“Walt,” Vicki called to her husband, “look over here.” Her voice was thin and high as she beckoned him over. Walt gave Tim another hefty pat on the shoulder before sauntering reluctantly over to Vicki. She stood next to a counter scattered with turquoise and silver jewelry. Vicki could feel rather than see the clerk watching them with narrowed eyes and hot cheeks.
“These are so beautiful, don’t you think?” Vicki reached out and brushed a bracelet lightly with her forefinger. The stones were cool to the touch. She let her hand hover over a slim, delicate ring. Vicki’s grandmother gave her a turquoise ring, almost identical to that one, when she was a child. It was in the shape of a little butterfly with its wings spread out to catch the wind.
Vicki’s grandparents would go down to Arizona every winter and come back with arms full of souvenirs: arrowheads, beaded necklaces, pictures of the two of them posing with an unsmiling Chief at a reservation, woven blankets. Regardless of tribe or culture, it was all Indian.
When they brought their tourist gifts to share with their grandchildren, Vicki ran her fingertip over her grandmother’s ring.
“Oh, this?” her grandma asked. “Why don’t you have it, dear. It’ll look better on a younger hand.”
The ring was so small that it only fit on Vicki’s pinky finger.
Vicki picked up a silver chain from the counter. A large eagle pendant dangled from it, catching the light that managed to filter through the windows.
“Excuse me,” Vicki called to Tim, “where were these made?”
Tim looked at her with electric eyes and scratched lightly at his long black hair.
“What does the sticker on the back say?” he replied.
He turned his attention back to his comic book, using one long finger to flick the page. Vicki turned the pendant over. She frowned.
“It says, ‘Made in China.’”
“Well, there you go.” Walt glared at Tim, taking in the sober face. Tim leaned back in his chair and rested his sneakers on the counter.
“Well, how come the sign out front says ‘Handmade Jewelry’?” Walt barked.
“The jewelry is handmade,” Tim explained. “Only it’s handmade by little Chinese children in a factory. Why, were you expecting something else? Maybe a group of fat, toothless squaws sitting out front, making pretty trinkets for the white folk?” He raised an eyebrow at Walt, staring him down. Vicki stood silent, her gaze flicking back and forth between her husband and the teenager.
“You want something authentic?” Tim continued. “Go out there and dig around in the dirt for a bit.” He waved dismissively in the direction of the desert. “Maybe you’ll find some ol’Injun bones or something that you can take home and mount on your wall.”
Walt plucked the silver pendant out of his wife’s hands and tossed it back on the table with a metallic thunk.
“Come on, Vick,” he muttered, grabbing at Vicki’s arm. He threw open the door and was ready to step outside when Tim Begaye stood up on his chair.
Walt turned to stare at the tall slender teenager towering above him. Tim seemed to float in the air, his arms spread wide. Tim tilted his head back and pushed out an unearthly sound, slamming his palm into his open mouth, breaking up his howl into sharp staccato sections, just like Walt and his brothers did when they ran shirtless through the backyard, feathers in their hair. Tim stopped and lowered his arms to his sides. The gift shop rang with silence.
“That what you want? Is that what you want me to do?”
Vicki let her husband pull her out of the gift shop. Walt tried to slam the door shut, but the rusty hinges made it impossible. Instead, the door creaked shut gradually, on its own time. The sky in the West was a sharp orange that faded softly into rich violet as it curved down to meet the earth. Sunset had come much more quickly than Vicki had expected. She checked her watch. How long had they been in there? Walt kicked up clouds of grit and dirt as he stomped his way to the rental car. Vicki slid into the passenger seat wordlessly, her eyes fixed forward on a tiny crack at the corner of the windshield.
Her husband turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the vacant parking lot with an angry jolt. Vicki let Walt simmer in his silence for a few moments as they drove. His knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel.
“Let’s go get changed for dinner,” she finally said. Her voice sounded shaky and muffled in her own ears, like it was echoing back to her out of a canyon. “We can grab a drink down at the bar before we head out, if you want.”
Walt didn’t answer. He pressed down on the gas and urged the car faster and faster down the highway, narrowing his eyes against the sinking sun. “Sweetheart, I think you’re going too fast.” He pressed down on the pedal even harder. The vehicle roared as it switched gears, careening down the highway as the desert opened up in front of them in a postcard panorama. A great dead expanse of land.
“Walt, please.” Walt turned to snarl at his wife. He didn’t have time to even touch the brake when he noticed the coyote ambling across the highway. With barely a thump, the rental car barreled over the animal’s lean frame.
“Jesus Christ, Walt!” Her husband struggled to bring the car to a quick halt, the tires squealing against the hot pavement.
“What in the hell was that?” said Walt, more to himself than to Vicki. He sighed and pressed his palm to his chest. “About gave me a heart attack.”
Vicki turned around in her seat and peered out the back window. The coyote was lying in the middle of the road, still as stone. Without knowing why, she opened the door and stepped out, her arms and legs moving on their own.
“Where are you going?” Walt asked his wife’s back.
“I can’t just leave it in the road.”
She stood by the car for a long moment, feeling the core of her chest being pulled toward the dead creature, like a buoy being beckoned to shore by the tide. After several long seconds, she replied, “I don’t know.”
Vicki pressed her palm into the car door and shut it. She propped her sunglasses up on top of her head and walked over to where the animal lay heaped in the middle of the highway. Vicki could hear Walt switch the car into reverse and back the car onto the shoulder. She heard the car door slam shut as Walt got out.
Walt joined his wife as she stood in the middle of the road, staring down at the coyote’s crumpled body. Its eyes were open and glassy, staring out into nothing, and its mouth was parted in a grin of tiny pointed teeth. The coyote’s paws were bent as if in mid leap, as if it might jump up without warning and spring out into the desert.
“Are you alright?” Walt placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, but she shrugged him off, something she’d never done before. Vicki set her mouth in a hard line. The image of the coyote blurred and doubled through the wetness in her eyes.
“We killed it,” she murmured. Her knees popped loudly as she knelt down next to the coyote.
“Vicki, don’t get close to it.”
She placed her hand over the coyote, palm down, hovering just inches above its body. She spread her fingers and imagined she could feel the heat of the blood still caught in the veins and arteries, no more heartbeats left to pump it through.
“Vicki,” Walt repeated, “please.” The last word came out as a soft sob, deep in his throat. Vicki lowered her hand and touched the coyote’s pelt. She slid her palm down the length of the coyote’s side. Its fur was unbelievably smooth, like water poured over glass and the colors, all reds and browns and somber grays.
“Come touch it.” Her voice came out low and soft.
“No, Vicki.” Vicki felt like she was suspended over the coyote, like even if she tried to move she wouldn’t be able to. The air was still and warm around the two bodies in the middle of the highway.
Time was stuck, but the atoms between them continued to flicker and ripple in a continuous pulse. Then the sensation was gone, as suddenly as it had set in. Vicki pulled her hand away from the coyote and pushed herself to her feet. Her knees burned from the hot pavement.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
“You mean back to the hotel.”
Vicki shook her head. “No, I mean home.”
The couple climbed back into the car in silence. Walt pulled back onto the highway. Behind them, the coyote lifted itself from the ground and shook the heat of the pavement off its body. It rose up on its hind legs and walked out into the desert.