national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Robert Strong-bear breathes in the bruised air and sweeps one thick hand


Nimrod, Nha Trang, Talia Nussbaum

across his forehead—palms like crumpled paper;

like a gas station receipt, a thank-you note,

a birth announcement, a reason

to live—cradled and huddled

in his pocket. The canyons of his face

run wet, and he thinks it a waste—he does not own

his sweat,

or skin or rusted tendons.

there is nothing here but tumbleweeds and decades

of gravel in his throat, shattered

 

promises long since gargled smooth. sixteen years

ago he bought a dusty blue ’73 Gremlin

for 350—salvation

wrapped in sheet metal—it puttered

“Hallelujah” as he crossed the reservation line

to find work. in Santa Fe he saw his mother’s hands

in cured tobacco leaves

—the leather flesh like a fever—

each leaf a nicotine lullaby. he lost

that job for picking too slow. drove west and held the old lie

 

tight to his chest like a blanket desperate with disease

and he crashed his hands into the earth of Arizona—

to pull flesh and fortune

from the dirt, every tomato

another dream—mottled and sour, and soon to spoil.

by accident he crushed one scarlet fruit and it bled

sharp into his cracked

fingerprints, but he could only feel

the death of every Indian child soak into his hands; thin

juiced blood seeping through the soft skin. he left

 

that field without his week’s pay. he drove

and picked pistachios, grapes, watermelons, anything

he could rip from the earth;

traced the patchwork of the Southwest

in endless seasons of summer. in a few years

the car would not start—he smashed his hands into

the shrapnel of the engine

until he could not tell his flesh

—congealed in grease and the no star night—

from machine. he lay down on the side of the freeway

 

and tried to remember—if the black pavement wheezing

heat into the night felt warm like his wife’s body,

ripe and full in his arms.

he slept the long night alone.

in the morning he woke to the hung-over wind heaving

hot and stale against his neck and the road

snagged into his back.

he wiped his blackened

hands along his jeans—the crumpled motor oil

like gangrenous flesh—and realized just how much

 

of him was dead. his hands gloved in his own

hardened skin—so thick it silenced the false

pulse of thumb and numbed

his fingertips—

it took him three months to hitchhike

from the dust outside El Paso to South Dakota.

few would stop

to pick up a Native man scarred

by the American dream, propped against the tepid air,

standing empty like a refugee in his own skin.

 

he had walked the hundred miles east from Rapid City to

Pine Ridge. here—he stops to feel the wind blow heavy and wet

on the reservation line,

it hushes past his cheeks—like a midnight

goodbye, the lips of a broken man nestled hard against

his son’s forehead soft in sleep—leaving

the air sharp and barren, an old memory carved

into the badlands. he breathes in

the air like bruised redemption—his home tucked near into the hillside,

he turns and takes Route 18 towards where he knows

the sun has not yet faded.

Robert Strong-bear is drunk tonight.

silent, as he stares out and watches

the sun smear a desperate kiss along the skyline,

the horizon desperately pretending to be asleep.