Gallup was a stranglehold, locking tight around brown necks, and still they wanted more; more amber liquid to drown out the force of their lives. Those are the ones cast out by their families, said Naat’áanii’s mother, and so they wander the streets, looking for somewhere to belong. In summer months, when heat shimmers from pavement and billowing clouds glide over the state line, they are abundant. With tattered clothes and sunburned faces, shells of Navajos wander the streets of Gallup, extending their hands for change, searching faces for kind hearts, and wondering what happened. The city sprawls out over hills, around the arroyo cutting from east to west, beckoning Navajos and Zunis from the isolation of their reservations. A dingy brown church perches on a hill, looming over the pawn shops, bars, and loan services that line route 66, signs blinking long after sunset. At night, sickly orange light invades the tranquil darkness overhead while the refinery in the east spews clouds of chemicals and yadiłhił glows burnt orange. Diné Bikeyah rests in the northwest stretching east, a slumbering land mass of red mesas, plains stretching into the distance, and groves of juniper and piñon. I-40 runs east to west, the dotted pavement separating Naat’áanii’s world from the curious eyes of tourists on their way to Santa Fe or Sedona.
Here, near downtown in a coffee shop, Naat’áanii focused his thoughts not on the maladies of the city, but instead watched Anderson’s fingers stir the dark liquid in his mug. With slow motion, Anderson brought the steaming cup to his lips and took measured sips. His tongue licking remnants from his mouth.
What does his tongue feel like? Taste like? Naat’áanii thought. He looked away.
“What’re you thinking about?” Anderson asked.
Naat’áanii glanced at him. “Just thinking.”
“Hmm..that doesn’t answer my question.”
“I’m wondering why you brought me here.”
Anderson looked around. The warm peach walls blushed in sunlight streaming from a huge glass wall facing the street. Landscape paintings dotted the wall, each a mixture of purples, blues, and pinks. Soft music played—something about first love and its mysteries whispered around them mixed with the occasional clanging of the espresso machine.
“Coffee seemed like a good start.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Ah,” Anderson rested his chin in his palm and smiled. “I want to know you.”
I want to know you too. More than know you.
“We could’ve gone anywhere.”
“I get what you’re saying. Gallup isn’t my favorite place in the world either.”
“Then why bring me here?”
“Where else is there to go?”
Naat’áanii looked into the frothy brown in his cup. He let the silence stretch out, sliding the spoon around in his mug, mulling over where he wanted the conversation to go. “So what did you want to know?”
Anderson smiled. The questions kept coming and Anderson seemed captivated by anything Naat’áanii said—everything—even the dullest bits of information like his favorite color was blue or he enjoyed taking long walks in the evenings or he wrote sometimes when he was feeling overwhelmed by the world.
“Sometimes it’s just too much,” Naat’áanii sighed.
“Everything. The world. The reservation. It’s like this life is made up of things that are constantly in conflict with each other.”
“That’s just the way it is. Not everything meshes well together. I’m not even sure it’s meant to.”
Do we mesh well together? Naat’áanii noted the differences between them. Their height—Anderson was taller; their body type—Anderson was more muscular whereas Naat’áanii was lanky; their views of the world—Anderson was more positive and forgiving; their demeanor—Anderson was more confident. How can I get him to like me?
“I believe in hózhǫ́, but places like Gallup,” Naat’áanii said, gesturing towards the street, “make balance seem impossible. It’s in complete opposition.”
“The reservation can be like that too, you know,” Anderson said, taking another sip from his steaming mug.
Naat’áanii paused. How can he say that?
“Meaning not everyone on the reservation acts in hózhǫ́. Even traditionalists can alienate their own people.” Anderson folded his hands on the table and looked straight at Naat’áanii. “Look what happens when young people try to voice their opinions.”
“You know,” Anderson said. “Some traditionalists bring up the language argument. What if I don’t speak Navajo fluently? Does that mean I should be excluded from my community?”
“But being fluent isn’t a bad thing.”
“I didn’t say it was. But when it’s used to exclude or silence your own people, then that’s when it means something different.”
“The language and stories are important. They’re gifts from the Holy People.”
“That doesn’t mean they can’t change, can’t adapt,” Anderson said.
This last comment made Naat’áanii uncomfortable. What would my family think? His grandmother believed in the older stories and to her, it was more about interpretation than changing the stories.
“Maybe it’s more about how we interpret them. How we use them now.”
Anderson shrugged. “Could be.”
The waitress placed a slice of carrot cake between them. Naat’áanii pinched sweet crumbs into his mouth. Anderson sat in silence. Perhaps he was mulling over their world views or just didn’t want to talk while Naat’áanii ate. Was this how things were going to be? Their conversation halting when they reached an impasse.
Say something, Naat’áanii pleaded in his head. Anything, just don’t stop talking.
Anderson looked up as though he sensed Naat’áanii’s unease. He gave a bland smile, like he was saying well, that’s it, before looking out the window. So much for that.
“It’s complicated, isn’t it?” Anderson sighed.
“Add into the mix this bullshit with the marriage ban.”
“Think things will be different?”
“Well,” Naat’áanii stared into Anderson’s eyes, “it’s not like either of us is getting married right away.”
Anderson sipped his coffee.
Naat’áanii’s heart quickened. Shouldn’t have said that.
But Anderson seemed not to notice.
“If people thought the council wasn’t homophobic before, here’s proof. Bigotry and homophobia are now written into our laws,” Anderson said.
“How will the community respond, I wonder.”
“What about your family?”
“They’ve always been supportive of me. My grandma is upset by the ban and the rest of my family have strong opinions too.”
“That kind of support must be nice.” Anderson looked thoughtful.
“What about yours?”
“Let’s just say they’re mixed in opinion and leave it at that.”
Thoughtful silence resumed.
Naat’áanii reached for his glass of water. Whether it was because of his nerves or Anderson’s eyes taking in his movements, he didn’t know, but his hand grasped the glass and it slipped. The table flooded with water.
“I’m sorry—“ fumbled from Naat’áanii’s lips, rushing as if his words were spilling too, while he dabbed the table with a pile of napkins.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Anderson held Naat’áanii’s hand. “It’s fine.”
He’s so warm, Naat’áanii thought. I want to feel the rest of him—soft, yet firm flesh, warm like sands shifting in the summer breeze.
In the distance, a train’s blare rattled the tiny coffee shop, the sound masking the thumping in Naat’áanii’s chest. If he gets any closer, he’ll hear it. Do I want him to?
“You want to get out of here?” Anderson’s eyes were chestnut brown floating in creamy white. “There’s something I want to show you.”
They walked side by side, out into the noise of traffic, past the bars downtown. Naat’áanii looked up every so often and Anderson smiled in return.
A story rippled in Naat’áanii’s memory. A story from his childhood, from the before time, repeated in his grandmother’s voice. “It was told to me like this,” his grandmother would begin.
Changing Woman asked,
“Where are you taking me?”
“I want to show you something,”
the Sun responded.
They flew east
above the clouds
on an extending
bridge made of sunlight.
“Will you bring me home?”
“Yes, once I have shown you.”
So they went.
Naat’áanii and Anderson stopped at the mouth of a bridge that replaced the sidewalk. An orange sign hung on the side. It read CONSTRUCTION IN PROGRESS. Slumped down the corridor was a dark, raggedy figure. It stirred as they drew near. Although the top of the corridor was all windows, heat was trapped inside and flies buzzed around the slumped pile of rags. They probably smell the wine, Naat’áanii thought. Maybe the vomit. Anderson shook his head and Naat’áanii grabbed Anderson’s hand, choking back tears, throat tightening. Naat’áanii blinked hard and covered his mouth and nose with his free hand. They walked around the man.
“Sháłchíní.” A gruff voice sounded behind them. “My children.”
The man held out his hand. “Can you spare some change? I just want to buy some food.”
Naat’áanii shook his head and began moving on, but Anderson dug into his pockets. The man’s hair stuck out in all directions like black wire; his head seemed unsteady and his eyes squinted to focus on Anderson standing above him. Red. All I see is red, Naat’áanii thought. The lettering on his shirt was faded and hidden behind dirt and grime; blackened toes poked out from his torn shoes. A fly buzzed near his face while another nested in his hair and still another walked across his forehead. Anderson dropped some quarters and a few dollar bills into the man’s palm.
As Anderson continued down the tunnel, Naat’áanii stood watching the man crawl on his knees, grasp the metal bar behind him and pull himself up. His knees wobbled and he held onto the bar, supporting himself down the corridor in the opposite direction. There was no place to buy food in that direction, only American Bar with its red, white, and blue front; when they passed earlier there was already a line stretching from the door to the end of the block. Naat’áanii remembered the tightness in his throat. He felt it once before when he was eight or nine. Back then, they combed the city streets looking for an uncle they hadn’t heard from in weeks. He remembered holding his mother’s hand and walking downtown. They stopped at every slumped figure and asked after his uncle. It would be weeks before his body turned up in bushes near the wash on the west side of town. Naat’áanii watched the man stumble into the sunlight. He shielded his eyes from the sun and wobbled down the street. He clutched the money Anderson had given him to his chest, like it was the most important thing in the world. How did he get here? Naat’áanii wondered. Is anyone looking for him?
The man walked with no expression, his eyes blank. He saw nothing. All that seemed to mattered was alcohol, the burn of amber liquid in the desert of his mouth. Every time he came to Gallup, Naat’áanii saw them. Sometimes there were women too. On most weekends, they lined I-40; thumbs pointed towards town, maybe a few bills in their hand for gas. Why they chose to wander the streets of dusty Gallup, he would never understand. Gallup makes me sick, his mother often said. Those bilagáanas only want our money and our culture. They profit off Navajos that are too stupid to see what’s going on. All the jobs go to bilagáanas with nothing left over for us. They take and take and take. That’s all they know how to do is take and steal. Gallup people knew that Navajos and Zunis depended on the town so nothing ever changed. Navajos poured their money into Gallup every weekend. They came by the truckloads from as far as Chinle.
Naat’áanii knew street walkers would find their way home someday. He didn’t know how it happened. Maybe one morning they woke up, no money, and realized their family was home; that Gallup was a dangerous place, full of evil habits and leeches.
“Naat’áanii?” Anderson called from the end of the corridor. “What happened?”
“Just memories,” Naat’áanii said.
“Are you okay?”
“No, but I will be.”
They found Anderson’s truck, buckled in, and drove across the bridge that connected Gallup to I-40. Naat’áanii rolled down the window, tilted his head back, and concentrated on the feeling of wind. We are made of sacred wind. They merged onto I-40 and drove east.