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Eddie Chuculate

Lisa tip-toed to grab the next-highest knot and began to swing, dipping nearly to the surface before rising up and over the narrow but deep river, which glittered musically in the sun. When the rope reached its apex, she hung frozen for a moment before releasing and dropping knife-straight, hair flying above her like a shroud, toes stabbed at the river. Slowly, she bent at the waist and vanished into the water with a small splash and an aquatic thunk! followed by spreading rings as if a big fish had tailfinned the surface. Jerome watched her from the high bank, scanning to predict where she’d emerge, but she sprung up directly in front of him, whipping her hair and creating a mist that briefly caught the colors of the spectrum.
     They had just finished playing in an all-Indian co-ed softball tournament near Little Kansas. The team – players, wives, girlfriends, friends, relatives and children – was camped along the Illinois River at a place where someone knew there was a good rope swing hanging from a tree along the bank. They had been knocked out of the tournament when Jerome, dizzied from beer, overthrew first base, hitting a woman in the bleachers as the winning run scored. Lisa of course outshined him again by slugging two home runs and making a diving catch in center. Since meeting the previous semester of college she had established dominance in tennis, golf, softball, basketball and diving, but Jerome bested her in arm wrestling, typing speed, snooker, drawing and putt-putt golf.
      They had both taken turns on the swing with Jerome merely dropping off the rope into the water while Lisa did gainers and twists and even some sort of reverse-type dive. They were toweling off, watching fishinghawks skim the sparkling river like curved darts, when Lisa said she wanted to go see her aunt and grandpa, who had been sick. Jerome was surprised; he didn’t know she had relatives living in the eastern part of the state since she was from the other side of Oklahoma City.
     “Coming out here the roads started to look familiar,” she said. “Grandpa took us to play volleyball once up by that college.”
     They told everybody they’d be back in a couple of hours and took the narrow road back to the main highway ­– a crazy tree-lined stretch of repeated blind curves that followed the course of the river, which was crowded with canoeists, rafters and fishermen that time of year. They drove it slowly, creating a small traffic jam behind them, with Lisa constantly craning her neck, looking up hillside driveways. Scissortails looked down on them from highline wires, tailfeathers spread like slender peace signs. Finally she spotted it and Jerome turned onto a grassy lane, which led up a small hill to a neat, two-story, green-trimmed house with a chicken coop and garden in the back. A woman wearing pink curlers met them at the door.
           “Well, Lisa, what on earth?”
           They hugged and went inside and Jerome looked for a resemblance between the two. Although Linda was almost as tall as Jerome and big-boned – Lisa was considerably shorter – they shared the same light-brown skin tone and high, prominent forehead. Linda was a sister of Lisa’s father, Leonard.
           Linda brought glasses of iced tea into the living room.
            “So,” Linda said, “you guys camping out down here?”
           “We were playing ball and stopped at the river to cool off,” Lisa said.
           Lisa told her that she was attending college nearby, where she met Jerome in a Native American art class.
           “How’s grandpa doing?” Lisa said.
           “About the same,” Linda said. “I gave him his foot massage just a while ago. Come on, let’s see if he’s awake.”
         Jerome stayed in the front room with Linda’s husband, Lloyd, who was watching golf on TV. Jerome heard Lisa say, “Hi, grandpa.”
         While they were gone Jerome looked at their collection of Indian artwork. There were dozens of framed original paintings on the walls and marble sculptures on pedestals in the hallways. It looked like a mini-museum. He was looking at a oil painting of an cowboy-hat-wearing Indian atop a bucking bull when he was distracted by a shrill noise that said in a questioning tone, “Cuppa coffee?”
         “That’s Pretty Boy Floyd,” Lloyd said. “Old Bull likes to hear him sing. Usually we keep him in the den or hang him outside. He knows how to say ‘Cup of coffee.’ ”
           “I thought I was hearing things,” Jerome said, then noticed the framed photograph on the wall. “Who’s this?”
            “That’s Mr. Old Bull.”
            “Lisa’s grandpa?”
           “That’s him.”
           “He played baseball?”
          Lloyd laughed. “Baseball, football, basketball, golf, Olympic hurdler. You name it.”
           Jerome tried to make out the insignia on the jersey and cap.
         “What’s ‘H’ stand for?”
           In the picture Old Bull was on one knee with a baseball bat and glove in front of him. He was grinning broadly, with the bill of his cap angled up to thwart shadow. It revealed a strong, high forehead. Gripping five baseballs in one hand, he had a thick neck and muscled forearms, but was lean and wiry. Like a lot of old photographs, it had the year it was taken scrawled in the scalloped, bottom-right corner: 1920. Jerome tallied it up: Old Bull had to be at least 87 years old. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had read something on him in a book or saw him in a documentary a few years back. Ideas for an English Comp assignment (write about Someone Famous you know) were going through his mind. That and pure befuddlement that Lisa had never said a word about him, but then again he had never asked.
           “If you think that’s something, come here,” Lloyd said.
            Jerome followed him down short steps into a den.
           Lloyd flicked on a light. “Look at these.”
           In every corner of the den were polished, gold-gleaming trophies from various sports. The trophies were old and had a solid, brassy look to them, mounted on thick, wooden bases. Little figurines atop the trophies depicted participation in basketball, football, baseball, golf and track. There was another series of black-and-white photos showing football players.
           “Where are their helmets?”
           “Helmets?” Lloyd spat out.
           All along one wall were framed pictures, medals, certificates and puffy red and blue bunting-type ribbons. Jerome read:
          “In honor of his record-breaking achievements in athletics both amateur and professional and in recognition of his outstanding character on and off the playing field, Jamison Old Bull is hereby inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, this 26th day of October, 1966.”
          Jerome prowled around the room reading all the inscriptions. There was an ancient catcher’s mitt in a Plexiglas box, intercrossing wooden golf clubs hung along one wall, and an oblong old Rawlings football resting in a silver trophy cup bearing numerous autographs in faded, loopy script proclaiming a championship in the Big Six Conference.
         Jerome read that Old Bull also was a member of the Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, the Haskell Junior College Hall of Fame and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Hall of Fame. One trophy read:
          “Most Valuable Player 1926, Chattanooga League, Jamison Old Bull, Richmond Braves.”
     Lisa had never said anything about him, Jerome thought, still incredulous over the fact. If anyone in his family had accomplished such feats he would have been reminding her constantly. But from his own on-field exploits it was painfully obvious he had no Olympic-type bloodlines.
           Lloyd put on a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and fumbled around in a drawer, pulling out a yellowed paperback from a zippered bag. He thumbed through it and handed it to Jerome. It was a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” book. Jerome read the bold caption:
    An artist had drawn a picture of a player throwing and a player catching a football in two separate frames. Underneath were two sketched likenesses of the brothers. Jerome saw the distinct foreheads, floored that Old Bull had also had an athletic brother.
            After Jerome had looked over all the mementos in the den, they went back into the living room, where Lisa had spread out her beadwork on a coffee table and Linda was pawing through it.
           Jerome asked them how Old Bull was doing.
           “He talked to me a little while,” Lisa said. “I told him we were playing softball and he wanted to know if we won.”
          Jerome saw Lisa in a new light. She was always the best female on their co-ed team and she could handle her own on the basketball court without even trying while Jerome usually got all worked up and in a huff, bouncing the ball out of bounds off his feet. He tried golf once but actually had to quit after the third hole after losing all 12 of his balls in the woods, pond and tall grass. He wondered if they had a kid together would he be an athlete like her or more of a doodler like him. Jerome asked to meet him.  

          In the mentholatum-smelling bedroom, Old Bull lay against a big wooden headboard with a fat yellowed pillow propped behind his back. His eyes were closed and for a scary second Jerome thought he was dead. His face was deeply creased and his silver hair was separated into two long braids that ran down his chest. An aquarium in the corner gurgled and threw watery shadows across his figure, while tiny angular neon fish darted corner to corner or shot to the surface. Pretty Boy Floyd began chirping, spun around twice on one leg and bobbed up and down, a yellow blur of motion. Then he tucked his head under a wing and grew silent.

          Old Bull’s eyes snapped open and locked on Jerome, who stood with Lisa at the foot of the bed.
          “How’s the farmin’?” he barked at Jerome, unsmiling.
          Jerome didn’t know what to think and looked at Linda, who mouthed the words, “It’s OK.”
“Pretty good,” Jerome stammered, trying to think of something sensible. “The corn about dried up but we got that good rain last week.”
          This seemed to satisfy Old Bull, who nodded in response, then looked at Lisa.
          “When did you get here?” Old Bull said.
          “Just a few minutes ago,” Lisa answered. “Remember, you asked if we won or not.”
          “Who won?”  Old Bull demanded.
          “We did,” Jerome said. “Lisa hit a home run and we won.”
           “Got damned right!” the old man said forcefully.
          Jerome saw Julie’s eyes welling. She kneeled next to her grandpa, put her hands over his. Old Bull closed his eyes.
          “Remember Hawaii?” Lisa asked.
          When Lisa was little Old Bull coached their fast pitch softball team and they flew to Honolulu and beat a team of all stars.
          “Thirteen to two. You were the MVP,” Old Bull said, and smiled, eyes shut. His chest rose and fell.
         He had fallen asleep, gently snoring, a wisp of hair in the corner of his mouth.  

          Lloyd left briefly and returned with a glossy calendar. He opened it to August. There was Old Bull again, this time in his Haskell football uniform. The captioned summarize his career – including the Ripley’s record – and gave his nickname: “Big Skee.”
          Linda bought beaded hair barrettes and a bracelet from Lisa so she would have walking-around money at school. While they chatted Lloyd returned from his garden with a paper sack. Inside were plump Jalapeño peppers, green peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.         

They drove silently on the way back to the campsite, the river occasionally flashing milky green between dense stands of oak and catclaw thornscrub. To their east was the notorious Big Momma cliff that had a death-toll sign that updated every summer from show-offs and drunks trying to dive off into Lake Tenkiller without actually knowing how. There were also the cliffs Big Daddy and Pure Hell. Jerome jumped from Pure Hell once and it seemed like it took an hour to resurface, choking and spewing water, lungs scorching.
          “Hey Lisa. How come you never told me your grandpa was such an athlete?”
          “I don’t know.”
          “You didn’t think I’d be interested?”
          “Oh, that was a long time ago. He’s just my grandpa to me.”
          When they reached camp people were still swimming and charcoaling burgers. Players were standing in a circle drinking beer and smoking a joint. Getting out of the car with the calendar, Jerome got a big whiff of it mixed with wood smoke. Someone was cracking a joke about a guy who was always saying he had “a little Indian in him.”
“I told him, ‘Well, let’s see him, then. Maybe we’re related.”
          Jerome laughed along with everyone, then said “Hey, look at this. This is Lisa’s grandpa,” he said, handing off the calendar to the first person who stuck his hand out. It was passed around and everyone read it.
          Someone joked: “Hey, Jerome, no wonder she plays better than you.” They all laughed.
          As the sun sank, Old Bull was the basis for much conversation. People would stand looking, reading the calendar, then nod or point in Lisa’s direction. Lisa was polite and answered all their questions and even took one last swim. Gales blew in, blowing caps off people and spinning paper plates and cups into the air. Kids were gathered, trash picked up and fires put out and the cars formed a caravan for the drive back to Muskogee.
          On the way home, Lisa cried.
          “He only remembers me as a little kid,” she said, looking out the window.
          Jerome wrote the following for his paper:  

On June 12, 1924, Jamison Old Bull won a gold medal in the 110-meter intermediate hurdles with a time of 12.25  in the Paris Olympics. Three years later, the full-blood Arapaho Indian from Calumet, Okla., became the starting center fielder for the New York Yankees, and led the league in hitting with a .347 batting average. He was the first Native American to play in a World Series and later coached generations of  Indian athletes at Haskell Junior College in Lawrence, Kan. He played on a highly popular barnstorming basketball team called the “Amazing Redskins” across the Midwest and East Coast that drew crowds of thousands. But Mr. Old Bull, who currently lives in northeastern Oklahoma, remembers none of this for he's suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.”  

Two weeks later Linda called and told Lisa that Old Bull had been admitted to the Indian hospital in Tahlequah. It was on a Friday and since Jerome had to travel through Tahlequah on the way to watch his nephew play football, they made plans to drop Lisa off at the clinic while he would rejoin them later.
           “Tell Lloyd and Linda I’ll see them in a couple of hours. Tell them I have to be in Stilwell in 30 minutes,” Jerome told Lisa as they sat in the car outside ICU. “It’s his last game of the year and I promised him.”
           He kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back around midnight. I’m sure he’s going to be all right.”
           Lisa opened her beadwork box and took out the medallion she was going to give to Old Bull. The little glass beads winked, ocean blue and orange in a starburst design.

Jerome drove to the game. Stilwell’s mascot was the “Indians.” The team was led onto the field by a galloping, war-painted white horse with a painted-up “brave” riding it. They raced to the 50-yard line where the horse reared on its hind legs and whinnied. When they came down they turned and faced the sideline and the rider slammed a spear into the turf and shook his fist at the visiting team. The crowd screamed wildly.
         Jerome scanned the Stilwell roster for Cherokee names. There were plenty of them: Sixkiller, Mankiller, White Killer, Killer, Vann, White Hater, Cabbage Head, Mouse, Cheater, Studi.  His nephew hurt his ankle in the first quarter on a reverse after a someone rolled onto it on a tackle and had to miss the rest of the game, so Jerome drove back to the hospital as fast as he could.
          Driving around looking for a place to park, he saw Lisa sitting on a bench near the main entrance. Lisa saw his car almost at the same time and got up to meet him, carrying her beadwork. She opened the door and got in.
          “What’s up?” Jerome said.
          Lisa didn’t answer, holding back tears. Jerome knew in his heart what had happened. He put the car in park. Before he could say anything, she blurted out, “My grandpa died.”
          Tears streamed out of her and she sobbed violently, and pulled Jerome closer to her; he smelled the damp clay of her makeup. The harder she cried, the harder she squeezed. He pulled her face tight against his, and their tears mixed. Jerome couldn’t think of anything to say so he just let her cry. She cried and squeezed and sobbed – a low, anguished wailing. When she was empty, the tears came again, the cycle was repeated. The rhythmic, wrenching sobbing was the saddest music he had ever heard, and he never forgot the piercing, bitter tears on his tongue.

The funeral was scheduled for midweek. Jerome arranged to be off work and to miss school. The explanation he gave both times was that his grandpa had died. One professor told him, “Sorry to hear that, son.”
          Services were to be held at a small Methodist church outside of Watonga. As they drove, they left the hilly, green landscape of northeastern Oklahoma and slipped into the central and western portions of the state, a flatter land of sweeping, red-earthen plains, vast fields of wheat, and sprawling, shallow rivers.
          Jerome had never been that far west in the state before and misjudged the distance. The church was located just off a state highway near the interstate exit ramp and they pulled into the grassy parking lot, which was nearly full. They were late and Jerome stayed in the car to put on a dress shirt and shoes but before he was finished Lisa and her mother came up to the car. People were already leaving the church.
          Apparently these services were for anyone who wished to attend, such as Old Bull’s ex-teammates, friends or players. Hundreds of people showed up from across the country and Canada, as Old Bull had went on to coach generations of athletes both at Haskell and in California and also in the Yankees organization. But the services Jerome and Lisa would be going to were for family and relatives only.
          They drove into Watonga, running out of gas as soon as they pulled up to the pump. He refilled and Lisa directed him out of town and onto a dirt road.  After crossing an old iron bridge Jerome saw cars parked in a field to the east of a small, A-framed wooden house and saw more cars behind him.
          “What’s this?” he said. “I thought we were going to a cemetery.”
          “This is the cemetery,” Lisa said.
          Old Bull was to be buried next to his wife on their land given to his parents after the Southern Arapaho had been forced into western Indian Territory. Unlike some other descendants, Old Bull had refused to sell although there had been many offers from wheat farmers in the region. Finally, after decades, they had quit asking and were forced to lease.
          Lisa and Jerome were in a long line of cars now and after crossing a cattle guard, rattled up into the yard. Lisa’s mother, Marilyn, came out of the house and flagged them down.
          “Come on, Lisa, hurry,” she said.
          Lisa got out and the two walked down an old pasture trail to the mourners huddled under a rainbow-colored canopy. Jerome saw Lisa’s father, Leonard, signaling him to park near the house.
          “This is Jamison, Lisa’s brother,” Leonard said, motioning toward a teenager swinging a golf club.
          Jamison wore camouflage pants and black rock-climbing boots. He was shirtless and had a dip of snuff bulging in his bottom lip.
          “Hey, you play golf?” Jamison said.
          “I’ve swung a few clubs,” Jerome said. “But I’m just a Sunday duffer.”
          “Want to hit some balls?”
          Jerome looked around, at the burial services proceeding at the gravesite, and down at his own dress pants and shoes, which seemed garish compared to what the father and son were wearing.
          “I don’t think so. Not right now.”
          Jamison teed up in front of the car, waggled his driver and drove the ball toward the South Canadian River, distinguished by clusters of cottonwoods, tops shaking in the breeze, running along the banks. The ball rocketed off the tee and climbed and climbed until Jerome nearly lost sight of it in the clouds. When it reached its apex, the ball seemed to hover a couple of seconds, then began a gentle, forward fall. When it returned to earth, around 350 yards later, it took three big, running hops and rolled and rolled. Jerome was impressed; he would have been lucky to hit it half as far and half as straight.
          Leonard shared drinks from his bottle of Old Crow. Jerome heard snatches of a low, mournful song, brought to his ears on gusts of wind. He presumed it was Arapaho. Jamison continued to angrily smash balls toward the river, but neither father nor son made a move to join the service, which Jerome thought odd. But it was plain to see that they had dug the grave because their shoes had red dirt and mud on them and muddy shovels leaned against the house. Jerome excused himself to join Lisa at the gravesite.

The second-hand still swept on Old Bull’s gold watch as he lay in his casket, arms folded neatly around his midsection, wiry coarse hair springing from the knuckles on his big athlete’s hands. Lisa’s medallion lay on his chest, contrasting brightly with the grey single-breasted suit and lavender  satin of the coffin. Jerome sat next to Lisa and held her arm. She dabbed at her eyes with pink tissue; she had already gotten most of the crying out back home. The preacher delivered the service in Arapaho and Jerome could only discern a few English words, such as “Boeing,” “jet engines” and “Gethsemane.”
          Later Marilyn told Jerome that the pastor had commented that although Old Bull had fought in the Argonne Forest in World War I, he returned to a country that actually denied him the right to vote. Then he’d worked in Wichita building killing planes for the next big war before being buried on land that wasn’t his native country, as his tribe was forced to relocate there by the government. But the preacher said Old Bull had held no grudges and went on to use athletics to excel in the larger world and help other Indian athletes.

After it was over Jerome and Lisa stayed until all the cars were gone, then they made plans for an upcoming visit.
          “Under better circumstances,” Jerome told Leonard.
          On the way out, Jerome wondered why Leonard and Jamison didn’t go down to the burial, but he wasn’t Arapaho and didn’t know Arapaho ways, and didn’t feel it appropriate to ask. Jerome told her Jamison was hitting golf balls during the service.
         “Oh, he’s just a goofy guy,” she said.
         They rumbled across another cattle guard and turned left, east. The gravel road ran alongside the two graves. Leonard and Jamison were shoveling clay-red dirt into the hole, which was ringed by bright yellow and red flowers. He slowed the car to a respectful crawl as they passed.

He decided not to write Old Bull’s story for class because he would have to bug Lisa with a lot of questions. He looked into her window and was about to knock when he saw her sitting cross-legged on the bed looking at the keepsakes and pictures spread around her, hair hanging sadly down the sides of her face. He'd seen the group shots with Old Bull in the middle wearing a whistle and a smile, Lisa holding a bat and a trophy with her grandpa kneeling beside her; dried-up flowers and pictures of muscular natives in boats dipping oars into the choppy Pacific    something Old Bull remembered till the very end. Jerome finally decided to write about his uncle, who was a famous artist. Lisa sitting there in a dejected pose sifting through the box of memories broke his heart. It was the first time he wished he could take over someone else’s hurt for them. Especially when Old Bull lived not an hour down the road all these days. He wished he had been there with her at the hospital instead of the game but liked to think the old coach would have understood.