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  • A half dead hollow man walks home from tribal jail. Couple malt liquor cans in his pockets, he spent the last three months of lease checks on alcohol. Like an Indian scarecrow, he sways. His hair braids, traditional Lakota braids, are always oiled, the one part of himself well-kept and proud. Last of few totally fluent Lakota speakers, he knows songs never uttered under skyscraper lights. He'll sing them again, crying by a creek near the cabin where his auntie raised him.

    Drinking through a few more cans, he decides to head for the mercury light on the hill. He never visits his cousins while sober. Too ashamed, he was the oldest, and it hurts to be surrounded by their children, their life away from the pitfall of addiction.

    "You guys think you got me all figured out, huh. Well, just wait, I'm gonna be somebody, gonna do something with my life yet."

    He hollers, escorted to the door by his cousin's husband. That didn't go as planned. Started well enough, handed a friendly cup of coffee, reminiscing on bygone childhood memories. Then he tried to perk his coffee up with a fifth of whiskey. Not in front of the kids, they said. Time for you to go cousin, they told him. A single cheap dimestore rose falls from his pocket as he is led outside.

    "Hey wait, let go, that's important..."

    He scrambles to pick up the rose, crease it back into a dogeared Gideon bible he carries in his coat. His family stares, astonished. He's not a man known for floral mementos.

    Back down in his cabin, he drinks until too numb to stand. The old wood stove burns a bit warmer than the draft coming through holes in the wall. He was married once to a woman from Eagle Butte reservation. Her eyes were the color of sepia photographs. Her birthday was in April, shrouded by a light mist and rain. He has not forgotten her. When he passes out, she comes to his dreams. The faint scent of her perfume hangs soft like wood smoke from a chimney a mile away.

    In the morning, he nails boards across the windows and doors. It's time. He'll be gone for awhile. Every year, he disappears for several months. His family will assume he got thrown back in jail, or came into some money and flitted up to Rapid City.

    He hails passing cars, but none want to stop for a rough looking Indian. He walks miles, the summer heat wavering glassy on the horizon. He is a fifty year old man now. The beginning of what is likely cirrhosis making him more prone to fatigue. Yet the motion of placing one step in front of the other calms him. Where did all that time go? The years have been a drunken oblivious blur. As if the liquor he stole from an uncle when he was thirteen was a black hole he never quite escaped.

    Finally, a semi truck pulls over.

    "Where ya heading, friend?" An older man in a cowboy hat asks. Several crucifixes dangle from the rearview mirror.

    "North."

    "Hop in. Might be I can help."

    He gets in the cab. They don't speak much. He falls asleep. When he wakes, they are an hour up the road.

    "Stop. This is where I need to get out."

    Though his body is worn, it seems wrong to ride to this destination. So he savors the pain in his soles, and the heat baking his back. When he's too tired, he hides in the ditch to rest. In every town he passes, he steals vegetables from newly bloomed gardens, buys as many tins of vienna sausages from convenience stores as he can afford. Sometimes he lingers a couple days, does a few odd jobs for cash. He slowly progresses north this way, as he has the last fifteen years.

    A road that says Eagle Butte three miles looms after a month. He remembers a smile after a cool spring rain. These endless hills of grass are hers. They formed her into being, gave her a name, and eventually took her back into their cold embrace, dissipating her body into the grain. She slept in his arms, but he never owned her, for she belonged only to the tangerine sky, the clouds stretching into what seemed like forever. As did he.

    Pages turn until he gets to the rose, creased somewhere in the book of Job. The summer light is just beginning to set. Red twilight tone washes the sun bleached dirt. It never gets easier, even after all these years, to face the twilight without her. Straightening his collar, combing his hair, he walks through the cemetery gates.

    "I've missed you, my wife."

    He says, gently placing the rose near her plaque. Rust has almost eaten her name. He'll make her a new one before he goes home. For now, he lays beside the grave.

    He can see her black hair, trailing like ribbons in the sunset's halo. Her sepia eyes peer into him from the cottonwood trees. She is everywhere, in everything. He wishes he could start this life over, have another shot at becoming the man he wished to be. He wants to be anyone other than the man he is, this pathetic shell of addictions who hurt the one woman he loved. He drank too much back then, suspicious of her after a few beers, accusing her of every infidelity and disloyalty.

    Nothing in him was worthy of love, so he never understood her. Even his own parents had discarded him. He suspected his very creator placed him on this earth as a cruel jape. So why should this beautiful woman encourage him to put down the bottle and fulfill his dream of being a teacher? Why should this person believe in him who never believed in himself? Why did she find good where everyone else was sure only problems existed? Her love scared him. It went against the world's judgment of him.

    He became more erratic, more mean in his drinking. He even hit her once. The morning after, he looked for her to say sorry, like he always did when his senses returned. Yet while he was passed out, she had packed her few possessions and left. He never bothered her, never inquired where she had gone. He knew she was better off without him.

    Many years later, he saw her obituary. He cried. Somehow, his feet moved down many roads. Somehow his hands acquired a single rose. He walked many miles across the summer to say goodbye. If only the heat in his eyes, the blisters on his feet, could atone for his failure to pull free from his demons. He did love her, in his broken, fallible way.

    After a few weeks, when he came back, he stopped at his cousin's again. He told about the voyage he took to Eagle Butte every year. I was there. I sat at the table and listened. What love, what failure, what desperate clawing for something better, even while hopelessly stuck in addiction. I've never known so much beauty and damnation entwined in one man.
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