Patty swung her arm back right past my ear and lobbed the ring up into the speckled sky. I listened for the clink out there in the sand, but the cool night air kept the sound to itself. I'd never seen anyone do that before—throw a ring away—a guy's ring he must have given with some piece of his heart in mind.
"That's it for him," she said, in a low tone just loud enough for me to feel like I was listening in. "He coulda come out here for a coupla weeks; it wouldna killed him."
I stood against the top rail of the rough fence that marked the outer boundary of Ganado where the irrigated grass gave way to scrub, desert. It was so quiet it seemed you'd be able to hear a rhinestone ring hit the dirt a few dozen feet away, but a few feet or yards could easily become miles and then millennia that swallowed up the lonely square mile of oasis. It was one thing to sign up for a summer sojourn on a Presbyterian mission in the southwest and another to stand in the dark desert and think you could hear the stars.
"So, what are you going to tell him when you get back?" I really didn't care all that much, but Patty was pretty steamed up and I wanted to be careful about not saying the wrong thing in the wrong way.
"Not going back, I never liked Fort Wayne, and I like it less now. Do you know how close we are to California?"
I had some idea, but I sensed she wasn't referring to distance. "You keep heading west, outside Ganado, and I'll bet you could drive it in twelve to fifteen hours, easy."
"Why are you so smart? I'll bet you figure a rate of speed too, in that New York City brain of yours."
I wasn't from New York City, and Patty knew that because I'd gone into a whole explanation about upstate and downstate New York at the orientation session last Sunday night at the church, but getting caught up in all that again would just make Patty angry. That's the last thing I needed.
"You do, don't you, figure stuff like that!"
"Sometimes," I said. "It's fun."
"Fun!" I felt her staring at me, but I couldn't really see her eyes. The sky was bright but below the horizon everything got sucked in. Her breath was almost in my face and her head's shadow was about what I could make out from where she stood. "Fun," she said again, without so much heat. "Fun," she choked a little, "I don't know if fun is something I could describe as ever having."
"What's his name," I asked, not knowing what else to say.
"Just Jim. Jim, Jim, Jimmy."
It was a long dark walk back to the cavernous dorm where all of the summer volunteers bunked in the quarters of the Navajo high school kids who lived there from September to May. Patty headed straight for the girls' side of the building, and for the next three weeks of her stay, she avoided me like high altitude chiggers, which was really okay with me. I felt guilty for being in on a secret I didn't want to know, had no reason to keep, and didn't have anyone to tell who would care, either.
Abraham Lincoln swung out to the extent of the chain and dropped back down and through to the bottom of the pendulum and up again, passing me going in the opposite direction. We had met on the big swing set the first night of July. His name was a real novelty at first but I got used to it soon enough. "Linc" was a day student, and he took the cafeteria suppers as late as possible so he didn't have to drive his old pick-up out to the family hogan until after dark. He knew I wanted to see the place but it took him time to trust me even though he was as curious about the Anglo from the east as I was about the Navajo from Arizona.
We bumped and banged along a desert track for what seemed like an hour before a tiny glint of light blossomed into a single yard light on a short pole. Linc coasted the truck to a halt near the light pole and we got out, slamming the creaky doors behind us.
"Home," he said. "Welcome home, hey." Linc hit his one note chuckle and I followed him inside.
His mother must have already retired to the bedroom, cut off from the middle of the hogan by a thick rug that hung from a low cross-beam. In the dim light cast from the corner table lamp the red and black design of the rug made shapes like long arrow heads that in the shadowy light looked like they could be moving.
"Have one." Linc handed me a beer he'd pulled out of a tiny fridge tucked into a cupboard that angled across a corner of the hogan. From the outside, I'd noticed the traditional octagonal structure but once inside I couldn't orient myself to the layout. It felt bigger than I'd imagined, but the lack of bright light made me feel claustrophobic. Linc drank his beer in a couple of long gulps, like it was water. He bent into the cupboard for another. A box of empties stood in the corner close by. A kerosene lamp hung from the center ceiling beam. Linc saw me looking up at it.
"It's good for some light, a little heat, lots of stink. We never run out of beer, though, right Pop?"
The old man nodded ever so slightly, and if Linc hadn't waved the bottle in his direction, I'm not sure if the old man would have moved at all the whole time we were in there. Wrapped in a blanket and sunken into the deep arm chair, he looked like a mummy.
"It's early," Linc said. "Let's go, I got something to show you."
I heard the squaw dance about the same time I could see a glow, low in the sky at the edge of a mesa. I got the eerie sense of ritual as Linc bumped the truck along toward a crowd milling around a bonfire. Dark figures leaning against the night. Indecipherable talk. Somewhere a high-pitched chant, and another voice, moaning. Inside a broad three-sided desert tent a man lay on a raised platform. That's where I stood at the rear of the encircling men and peered into the fiery hibachi, flames leaping into the spitting intestines pulled from what I hoped was a coyote. I didn't drink much beer, and no one passed a peyote pipe my way. I felt clear-headed as the crystal sky as I stood in the tent and swayed back and forth with the rhythmic chanting.
"You're the only Anglo here," Linc muttered nearby. "Act natural." When he turned to leave, I followed him.
I loved riding the desert trails by night. The hulking shapes of mesas and towering rock formations cut the horizon into puzzling shadows and played with my imagination.
A team of linguistic experts from Arizona State University were completing a decade long project of recording the oral traditions of the Navajo into print. Linc wasn't happy with the project or the least bit confident that it would help the tribe. More than a few times he cursed the translators and vented his anger at me. "The Navajo is a thousand years of signs and symbols. When you Anglos make all your translations, the true Navajo will vanish."
I always protested, and sometimes he would temper his anger but not his point of view. The exchanges made for a strange kind of bonding that must have had to do with the vast emptiness around us and the wind washing through the open windows of the truck.
"You stood under the tent of our decline," he reminded me, once, matter-of-fact. "You heard Navajo elders chant for the spirits to heal cancer. Our time has passed; you will remember someday that you were there." As we coursed through the glimmer of a dry desert, I knew I'd never forget the reflection of thousands of tossed bottles, the casual, endless trail of broken glass.
Linc dropped me at the bus depot in Gallup when it came time for me to head home. Shaking hands good-bye, I said I'd be back soon. He punched me hard on the arm and turned toward his truck. "Not as soon as you think, brother."
"Write," I said.
Before I left, I intended to hike out into the scrub beyond the fence to look for the ring Patty flung out into the dark, but I didn't get around to it. As the Greyhound rolled east, images of the ring clinking in the sand, the sky opening above the rock shadows, and the hiss of animal fat above the fire came together. Would I ever see Patty again? But it was Linc I really cared about, and in my gut I felt him already gone.
We were half way across New Mexico. Head-bobbing, ass-twitching, grappling with the limbo of the bus trip, I looked down from my window seat into the bed of a pick-up we passed. Three men hunkered against the side panels. One cast an empty bottle overboard. I tried to see into their faces as we cruised by, but no one looked up. I started thinking about the glass corridors marking the reservation, how trails of broken bottles were signs of something untranslatable. I thought of Patty tossing Jimmy's ring away, that it was like pitching a bottle into oblivion.
We had a short layover in Santa Rosa and then fumed out toward Tucumcari, the bus chugging to get up to speed. In the middle of that nowhere I jolted from a stupor, surrounded by a ring of Indians, fire gleaming in their eyes. One reached out to me and dropped a rhinestone into my hand. I rubbed my eyes clear of visions, but a hard little piece of glass drew blood, and I closed my fist around it and searched the big distance out the window.
Ganado became a state of mind long ago. I remember being so anxious to get there, and ever since, I've been leery of returning to a place that might not exist. It was lonely for Linc in Ganado; he didn't like riding the night solo. I lost track of him soon after he dropped out of Arizona State to write for a local newspaper. He established a respected byline before alcoholism overtook him and our sporadic correspondence.
In this upstate New York town where I shop, I like to feed the recycling machines at the Price Chopper. Green, brown and clear glass bottles twirl, bobble and crunch magically in their hungry augers. When the crisp receipt pops out, I pinch it in my fingers and trek to the cashier for my change. The highways around here are free of litter and lush landscaping shields most of these houses from headlights. Sometimes when I stand in my yard I hear a sound in the dark and I look up to check the stars, strewn through the sky like broken glass.