Hermiston is a town build on desert sands, puncture weed, tumbleweeds, feedlots, and Simplot. Parts of the town smell like cow shit; much of the rest of it smells like potato chips. The two things are related; the feedlots furnish the cow chips that grow the spuds. And the asparagus.
There is no college in Hermiston. There are no hills. There is no public swimming pool, although the town fathers did see fit to install a “splash park,” a forty foot square of concrete permeated with water jets and drains. The jets squirt in sequence; the children run screaming over the stinging hot concrete and onto the slick cool of the waterwashed center. They turn a blazing red in the hot Hermiston sun, marinated as they are by recycled water. Sunscreen is just beginning to catch on in Eastern Oregon.
I first met Jeanne on a trip to Hermiston. We were five. I was tall, towheaded, tanned. Jeanne was short, round, seal brown. My hair drifted light and fine and silver; hers bounced in two curly, nearly black pigtails. Our mothers, new acquaintances, had teamed up for a day of picking asparagus. We pulled up behind yet another acquaintance’s peeling gray frame two-story house, “Go play,” our mothers said, and then they ignored us, as mothers did in those days.
We ran for the tangle of locusts, poplars, chokecherries, elderberries, and buffalo grass beside the field. A sandy path led into the shadowy green under the trees. We careened along the path, skidding to a halt on the sandy banks of a river, flat, slow, stinking, and summer shallow. Flies bumbled slowly over its mossy shallows, flashing black rainbows in the sun. Jeanne plopped down onto the sandy bank, pulled off her sandals, scrambled to her feet, and waded fearlessly into the mossy shallows.
“Come in,” she called, but I looked at the river and saw not its placid shallows but the dark, mysterious, threatening ripples in the center. I sat stolidly on the bank, and longed for the courage to dip my feet. Eventually Jeanne tired of wading. She scuffed out of the water—surprising a fat frog, who croaked indignantly and plashed into the next pool—dropped to the sand beside me, and buckled her sandals back on. She flopped back onto her back in the sand, staring up at the rustling leaves against the hard blue sky.
“Let’s play Cowboys and Indians,” she said, swatting at a mosquito.
“I don’t know how,” I finally admitted. “I can only play Missionary Nurse.” Imagination wasn’t permitted at our house.
“You be the cowboy. I’ll be the Indian,” Jeanne said. “I have to be quiet, like Indians are, and you have to find me and shoot me.” She leaped to her feet and darted into the underbrush—and didn’t come back. Eventually I scrambled up and started looking for her. And so, fumbling, I began to play Cowboys and Indians.
I followed the path she had taken, looking at the trees, the bushes, the grass, looking for signs of her passing, her presence. And slowly, the game took over. I was the cowboy, looking for the Indian. I might be shot from ambush. A tree was more than just a tree—it might be a tree with an Indian behind it. A dimple in the sand might be an Indian footprint. A blade of grass might have been bent by the Indian’s passing. I crept through the hot, still shade, darting across open areas, lurking, seeking the Indian. I never did find her, although as the afternoon wore on I saw signs of her passing everywhere—in the rustling grass, in a rattling bush, in a low giggle. Finally our mothers called us. Jeanne jumped laughing from a bush nearly beside me, her high, brown black pigtails bouncing, her dark eyes sparkling, and we raced back to where our mothers stood in their dusty white blouses and faded pedal pushers. I won. We rode home among the dusty boxes of asparagus, giggling and whispering under the roar of the wind through the open windows.
It was like a new world for me—the knowledge that I could shape the world around me with my imagination. I couldn’t get enough of it. Jeanne and I never played Cowboys and Indians again, but I played Pioneer at home, an orange box covered with a doll blanket my covered wagon, the lawn my prairie. I played Wild West. When the bad times came I built myself an imaginary house and retreated there, rich enough to ignore the taunts of unkind classmates, grown-up enough to be free.
I heard a lot about “daydreaming,” “not paying attention,” “not being practical,” being “a million miles away,” none of it good. I frustrated and confused my family—and myself, for that matter. But I couldn’t stop. Without my imagination, the world was a bleak, gray place, and I was a bleak, gray blot in it.
The years passed, and the world became even bleaker. My family was torn by child abuse and molestation, and struggles for power. Jeanne faced her own demons. The easy love we’d had for each other suffered under the strain, and one day, in sixth grade, Jeanne wrote a note to me. It was signed by the “girls in the sixth grade class,” but I knew her handwriting as well as my own. “It’s not that we don’t like you,” the note read, “just please don’t eat your lunch at the same table with us any more.”
I crumpled the note up in my hand. I didn’t cry. Instead, I gave up. I stopped fighting for acceptance at school, stopped trying to start conversations, stopped trying to fit in. The world was not mine to shape with my dreams. That had been Jeanne’s gift to me, and she had taken it back. Jeanne still dreamed. I’d hear her talking sometimes about wanting to be a pilot—taking aviation, flying. I listened in a vague way, but mostly I knew that dreams weren’t for me. I had none to share.
We grew older, went to different high schools, different colleges. I went on to graduate school; Jeanne married and had a baby after her second year in community college. Occasionally Jeanne sent me pictures of her children. I had no children, so I didn’t write back. In her letters she talked about people I had once known—but I had no wish to see them again, or hear about them, for that matter. Remembering them was remembering pain and failure, things I had put behind me.
And then I had a son, and the struggle to build a business for both of us took up all my time. And then my father died. And then my mother had surgery, and I went back to Pendleton to care for her while she healed. For the first time in years, I found myself with a summer—long hot days, and leisure time to take my son to the wading pool I had frequented as a child, to take him to the old Carnegie Library where I had borrowed books—I still had my tattered orange library card with its little embossed metal plate—leisure to see Jeanne. I didn’t want to.
But gradually the reality of life in Eastern Oregon took hold—there is little to do except visit people, and I had been away long enough that there were few people to visit, and my mother and I were getting on each other’s nerves and her incision hadn’t yet healed enough for me to be able to leave. In desperation, one day I called Jeanne.
The last I had heard she was working at Wal Mart, in the fabric department, living with her husband and four kids in Hermiston. I felt nothing anymore, no more anger, loss, betrayal—not even nostalgia. I had grown up, become successful, poised, assured. I was a different person, nothing like the shy, awkward child I had learned to be, the one who had never fit into the boisterous, blue-collar cow and mill town into which I had been born. I had learned to tell myself that the best revenge truly was living well—and tried not to spend too much time thinking about why revenge seemed so necessary. Jeanne and I agreed on dinner.
Late that afternoon her ancient Suburban bounced and ground up our rutted, rocky road. The engine coughed to a stop. The dust settled and I saw short, stout little Jeanne dangling her feet above the ground, then leaping awkwardly. She slammed the door—it was a different shade of blue than the rest of the vehicle. Its chrome strip began and ended at its borders.
She ambled down the hill in her rayon paisley blouse and pulled knit slacks, calling, “HEL- lo.” She’d done it that way since I had first seen her all those years ago when we were both five. Her hair had gray streaks in it now. My gray streaks were covered with a rinse.
My mother looked up from her sewing, called “Why, hello,” back, and leaned over to unlatch the screen and push it open. Jeanne worked through the door and around mom, still sitting at the sewing machine, pulled up a chair, and started out, “How have you been?” “Fine.” “Boy, my parents have both just been at death’s door…”
And the conversation between my mother and Jeanne was off to a running start. I stood by the door for a minute, then said, “Excuse me – I need to go just finish something up, then we can go.”
“ALL right,” said Jeanne. “Take your time.”
I thumped down the stairs—as I had ever since I was steady enough to navigate them on my own—dropped into the wheeled executive chair my father had used at his desk, pushed off, and skated across the greenish gray concrete floor to where my computer hummed, the newsletter I was editing open on the desktop. The floor felt cold underfoot, the basement air cool around me. I hated to go outside into the summer heat. I really didn’t have to do anything on the newsletter, but the thought of sitting at the table while Jeanne and my mother nattered about my father and how hard it was to lose him to pancreatic cancer, and how sick her parents were made my stomach clench.
I wished I hadn’t called, but she was here, and it was time. I heard her coming slowly, heavily down the stairs—they’re higher and wider than standard steps, and you had to grow up on them to be able to run them as I did – and then the slap of her shoes on the concrete. I looked up and smiled; “I’m just about done here, then we can head out. Patrick, go potty.”
“I watching this.” my three-year-old had just discovered the world of Nickelodeon, something I had never been able to afford.
“We need to go, honey. Go potty and then bring me your pants.” He could get the pants off, but getting them back on still baffled him.
“I’ll help,” said Jeanne.
And they headed for the bathroom, Jeanne talking, Patrick trotting beside her. I saved the file and exited. They came back down the hall as I was setting the screen on “sleep” mode. “Say ‘good night, Mac,’” I told Patrick.
“G’night, Mac,” he obediently parroted.
I grabbed the keys and we headed for my car.
We rattled down the rutted, dusty dirt road to the highway, turned left, and drove up the hill, past the car dealership and the lot where the Wig Wam Hotel used to be, past the Pioneer Hotel, over the WPA concrete viaduct, and down under the massive, feathery locust trees that shade the valley.
We drove slowly—it’s the law, and the policemen are vigilant—but also because Jeanne was saying, “Remember when…?” and pointing. But I didn’t want to remember. We drove through town, past the second hand shops, the bars, the western clothing supply houses, the tattered old houses with their turrets and intricate shingles and siding. We passed the Round Up Park. “Can I play, Mommy?” Patrick asked from his seat in the back.
“After we eat, honey, if you’re good,” I promised. And then we were at the restaurant, and the present took over.
It was a new place, built in the years after I had left town. We ordered, and I learned that Jeanne now had diabetes. We ate, and made small talk, and were polite, two women with little in common except a past one of us didn’t want. We walked back out to the car.
“Can we play now?” Patrick asked
And so we went to the park, and Patrick played on the slide and Jeanne and I sat on the swings beside each other and suddenly I saw us in first grade, sitting on the swings, digging our toes idly into the hard-packed earth where the mud puddles always spread in rainy weather. The air lay warm and soft around us. The past was so strong I almost missed what she was saying.
“…always wanted to say I was sorry for the way I treated you in sixth grade. It was mean, but I wanted so much for the others to like me. I hurt you, and you were my best friend, and then we grew apart, and I lost you, and I’ve missed you.”
I looked over at her, digging her toes into the ground as I was doing myself. She looked up at me, and her eyes were warm, and suddenly it was mine again—that summer day, the bees and flies buzzing in the hot shadows, the sand underfoot, and the knowledge that the world was limited only by my imagination. Jeanne had given me more than an apology for a long-ago hurt; she had given me my soul—again. I had no idea what to say. The gift was too great. My throat closed. I sat there on the swing, watching my son play in the wet sand at the foot of the slide, and I could see us again, playing Cowboys and Indians in the trees while our mothers sweated in the asparagus fields.
I looked around at the sprinkler-wet grass, the paint chipping off the slide, at the Round-Up pavilion behind its ivy-covered wall, at the green tangle lying just over the path beside the river, and suddenly it shifted just like it had all those years ago. The game took over, and I knew that where there are trees, there may be Indians. And that possibility makes all the difference. The world is not just what we see—it is what we create.
I looked at the little dumpling of a woman on the swing next to mine and realized she had given me eternity, a world without boundaries—she had given me my dreams again, as she had on that long-ago day in the woods beside the asparagus fields. Because of her I draw, paint, write. If Jeanne’s betrayal in sixth grade caused me pain, her gift to me allowed me to survive that pain—and to survive other heavier blows.
“That means a lot,” I finally said. “I think that was a hard time for both of us.” And we smiled at each other, and dug our toes into the dirt one more time as we pushed off, and together, we flew, up, down, up, down, through the soft, warm evening, two middle-aged, dumpy ladies who hold each other’s past in gentle hands, riding the swings to clear blue freedom while my son played in the sand.
And the Indians were all around us.