I only wanted a lunch.
The X̣est Foods, a remodeled Harvest Foods, offers a deli with sticky spaghetti plates, crispy fried pork chops and gravy-topped mashed potatoes all squished under clear plastic wrap. The self-serve soda fountain offers an off-brand Dr. Pepper (Mr. Piper) and possibly the last Bubble Up soda fountain station in the lower 48 states.
I came for a spicy fajita chicken salad to eat at my desk but the Genuine Geno’s foot-long Italian sandwich falls into my arms. That’s where Benny catches my eye. I recognize the two braids dangling beneath his ball cap, Kansas City Chiefs. He has on his red and turquoise Pendleton shirt with green camouflage pants.
“Hi Benny. Happy new year.” That is kind of enough. Just a few nods and I’ll shake his hand and walk back to my job.
“I’m into hydroponics now, with the hippies. They whitewash the issues.”
“Yes, they do” That should be my window to leave. Is that sushi in his cart, and sprayable Cheese Wiz? I wonder if he puts the cheese on the sushi. And kombucha, pricey for being on general assistance.
“We need to take money out of our tribal interactions. That’s why I ask people if I can do them a favor and they can offer to help me out. When the trucks stop coming to fill these coolers and shelves with food, do you know how long until everything’s gone or rotten? Three days.”
And, great, now you’ve done it, I’m here for another twenty minutes. Try to walk away now. He’s staring deep into my eyes, looking for clues on how I’m a bad Indian. Bad Indians don’t have time to offer favors and listen to a cousin talk about what it takes to be a good Native.
“Good Indians do more than talk. They act like Indians. They ceremony, they smudge, they build sweat lodges. No one’s teaching the people today.”
He’s staring at me again, daring me to walk away. I work hard at not glancing at my watch as forty-minutes tick away, and now he’s ranting about the oppressive white man and the racist educational system, and whatever other horrors that keep a heel on the Indian peoples’ throats. I feel my feet start to turn away from him, which makes him talk faster.
He’s talking about eating those bitter mountain potatoes that grow at the base of marsh plants, which I get confused with three other marsh plants. Now he says he’s growing lettuce?
Does he know we’re standing in a grocery store?
“We can’t trust that corporate lettuce that’s poisoning us. Where does that come from? We need local control lettuce. People say when the trucks stop coming, they’ll just go into the woods to live. How long has it been since they were in the woods? Too long.”
We’re standing in the bread aisle, near the rows of coolers, and he’s almost yelling now and talking about how Indians need to act.
“We do need to remember the traditional skills,” I say. Was that too Native ass-kissy? Not a good time to keep staring at the sushi in his cart. I swear if I don’t walk away, I’m going to ask him about the sushi.
“Well, thanks brother for taking time to listen.”
“You bet, Benny. You Bet.”
As I turn around, I see Leroy peeking around the chip aisle with just his head poking out and looking my way. He’s trying to avoid Benny. Sneaky. I hold my hand up, palm down, thumb almost in my chest, and I move it like a sideways rising sun toward Leroy. He locks eyes and makes the same motion back before scurrying down the next aisle over, candy section.
I leave, walk by a tanned white guy who smells like eggs gone bad. I’ve seen him around; I think his name is Stu.
A week later I see a notice in the paper about a man who was hit by a car while selling lettuce by the road, just a block from the grocery store. Vendors lease a tribal lot there to sell blankets and pies and jewelry. When I find out Benny was that man, I feel my stomach’s bottom drop open like a trap door. In that moment I know I want to hear from Benny again. I want to remember the plant names he offered so freely.
They say nice things at his funeral. Good father. Good husband. Loved helping the people. I hope he’s living in a heaven of his creation, be it in marshes with floating plates of aerosol cheese on fresh sushi or giddily digging out marsh potatoes for his people who beam their love, respect and appreciation for his practice of the old ways. I remember to try to forgive myself for sniping at others, which just means I loathe myself. As they sing the mourning songs of the Salish, my eyes puddle. I want to sing, but I’ve never learned the words. There’s a pent-up turmoil of emotions, like a black tar that’s set free only to catch fire and fade into the orange morning sky.
I just wanted a lunch.
Robert McDonald is a public relations professional for a tribal government in Montana. He lives in Polson with his wife and family.