Turkey Comes to Coyote's World

It was just about dusk on a warm September Saturday night and the locals were beginning their ritual drag of the strip. Having little to do, young people cruised in their vehicles, honked at one another, and spent their hours burning gas and wearing out tires in a seemingly endless parade. Folks came from Geary, Hydro, Eakley, and Arapaho, all outlying communities, to cruise Main Street, Weatherford, Oklahoma.

Robby Benoit stepped out of his one-room house, which sat on the corner of an alley that ran midway between Main and Franklin. He was ready to sit in his small front yard and watch the parade of cars and pick-up trucks as they drove up and down the strip. He unfolded his aluminum and nylon lawn chair, sat down and popped open a can of Coors. He leaned back and admired his new Nocona cowboy boots as he took a sip of beer.

Robby wasn’t really interested in watching kids cruise. After all, that’s not why he had come to this small western town. He had taken a job at the university with the personal desire to see, meet and get to know Indians. He was part Indian, but he was part everything else as well, and all those parts had become pretty confusing. He thought that a little time in a small country town might be good for his soul. He had realized in the month that he had been in Weatherford that culture shock was taking his mind off the clamor of urban life. In fact, he suspected that it was just plain taking his mind. Gone were the hustle and bustle of clockwork, the rat race, and the endless demands of graduate school. Gone was the ceaseless drone of machines that provide the buzz of large cities. Gone, too, were many other nameless ills that turned human beings numb and made their lives seem pointless and petty. Weatherford was a different place. The small town had a slower pace and an austere, quiet way of life. Here was dust and wind and weathered looking faces that tell of nature’s severity in a droughty land. Here was where Robby had come to “put it all together.”

Robby finished his beer and was reaching for another when the baby blue, 1957 Ford pick-up wheeled into the parking lot beside the Gulf Oil service station which faced his house. The full moon had made its ascent over the horizon, and it was casting its faint light upon the occupant of the pick-up. The door of the cab opened and out stepped Cletus Packingstone, a giant of a man, a Kiowa Indian who had come to town for his own Saturday night ritual.

Cletus was from Burns Flat, where he lived with his sister Marie. He had recently come back to Oklahoma after serving two tours in Vietnam with the US Marines. Cletus was tall, but he was quiet and unassuming, and rarely seen in the company of other people. During the day he worked as an “oilie” roughneck. It was physically demanding work and often quiet dangerous. In fact, one time, Cletus had barely missed being struck by a loose chain, used to guide a drilling bit, that nearly cut another man in two. However, at the risk of his own life, he was able to pull the man to safety without getting hurt himself. When the foreman asked him if there was anything he would like in repayment for the deed, Cletus simply asked to work a double-shift, with overtime. It seemed like a rather unusual request to the foreman, considering that most men would choose a day off with pay, but Cletus was using his money to help fund Marie’s education at the university and to pay for his own Saturday night events. He liked to dress up, drive to town, cruise the beer bars, and shoot pool -- alone.

There was no mistaking Cletus. No one else who lived in town and no one else who came to town on Saturday night dressed quite like Cletus dressed. It was no less than flamboyant. He would always arrive in town at about sundown, clad in cowboy attire. Not that wearing western clothing was unusual (after all this was western Oklahoma - cowboy country), but Cletus dressed like a Hollywood cowboy after the style of Tom Mix of silent movie fame. He always wore a wide-brim Stetson with a thin lizard skin hatband, a white cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons on the placate and cuffs, and black embroidered piping around the pockets and the yoke of his shirt. His shirt collar was decorated with a silver arrowhead point on each end, and he wore a bolo necktie with a large Navajo turquoise tie piece and silver spikes on the ends of the tie. His pants matched his shirt, white, with black piping around the pockets, and mother-of-pearl buttons on the flaps of his back pockets. He wore a dark leather belt, and a large belt buckle of silver and turquoise designed to resemble a cluster of peyote buttons. The finishing touch of his outfit was a pair of very expensive Tony Lama snakeskin boots with silver tips and heels. He looked every bit the drugstore cowboy. But Cletus was a full-blooded Kiowa Indian, raised in an Indian community and a practicing member of the peyote church.

To the local folks, Cletus appeared as a humorous oddity, dressing up like a cowboy in an old west parade. They would pass him by and giggle to one another and mock him when out of his hearing with phrases like, “that’s one retarded Indian,” or “he’s a crazy red niggar.” For Robby though, Cletus was the first “real” Indian of the west that he had come in contact with, even if it was only to view him during his Saturday night visits. In Cletus, Robby saw a stoic man of the plains, and imagined him to be a master horseman with mystical qualities. He pictured him as someone from whom he could learn a great deal about Indian life and the spirit way. Unlike others in the town, Robby hardly noticed that Cletus drove an old Ford truck and drank himself into a stupor on most weekends. To Robby, Cletus was the incarnate, assured, and readily identifiable Indian that he wanted to become. Robby felt, after all, that that Indian part of himself was boiling to be freed from that cauldron of doubt in which he drifted from one place to another, from one experience to another, while never stepping on the earth long enough to feel her reassuring touch. Although born in a small New England town, Robby was an urban raised product of TV and middle-class aspirations. He was educated, mannered and somewhat arrogant, with a quiet self-conceit. He liked control, and believed he could handle any situation that confronted him. And, like most know-it-alls, he was afraid of himself, which is probably why he felt the things he did when he saw Cletus Packingstone.

Cletus closed the door of his pick-up and without even noticing Robby sitting in front of his house, stepped toward Main Street with his head cocked slightly back, and his arms swinging at his side. He crossed the street and walked into the first place that served beer.

He remained in the tavern for about thirty minutes or so, and then moved on to the only bar in town with a pool table, in the alley south of Main. Cletus went into the bar, walked over to the pool table and racked the balls to play. He wasn’t a pool shark; he wasn’t even good at the game, for that matter. He just liked to play. He played game after game, by himself, until late into the night. He drank beer after beer, occasionally washing it down with a pint of whiskey, if he brought one with him. But he always played and drank alone. Often, other drunks in the bar would taunt and cheer him on when he faced a particularly difficult shot. Most often he would miss, but he seemed oblivious to the crowd of jeering and hollering cowboys who would tell each other what Cletus did wrong and how they would have taken the shot. And if someone approached his table and put a quarter on the rail, Cletus would finish his game and quietly sit out. He never played with anyone. Off to himself, sipping on his beer, lost in his own silent thoughts, he waited until the table once again came open. Then he would play another solitary game, sometimes two, blurry-eyed and tipsy, until he had his fill of everything, and then he would leave the same way he came. He would put away the pool cue, stand straight, cock his head back and stroll out of the bar headed for his truck.

In the quiet of the night sky, after the cruising parade had faded for the evening, Robby thought about his grandmother telling him that she was the sister of the Turkey Clan Mother of the Onondaga. The story was told so long ago that it faded in his memory. He had no idea what she meant anyway. He shifted his thoughts to the present and to Cletus Packingstone, who was a living full-blood of a nomadic tribe of the plains. He had learned something of Cletus from his sister, who was a student in one of his classes at the university. She told him about his returning from the war and how he seemed distant even though he took care of her and treated her well. He didn’t have a wife or a steady girlfriend, but she reported that he would, on occasion, visit one of the Indian social clubs in Clinton, reputed to have a steady flow of loose women and cheap booze -- at least that’s what the man who owned the service station had told Robby. The man also said that he didn’t like Indians because they “got everything handed ‘em by the government, and decent folk have to work for a livin’!” Robby dismissed the dig on Indians living off the dole as just another frustrated redneck who hadn’t fully realized the American Dream and had to blame it on someone. Besides, he knew that Cletus roughnecked and was a decorated war veteran, hardly the image of a slothful welfare chiseler.

Robby knew a different Indian in Cletus, one more noble and compelling. He didn’t know why his image was any better or worse than the redneck’s, and it never entered his mind that neither image mattered to Cletus or to any other Indian. But it was important to Robby because he was certain that he understood Indians; he was sure he did - he was part Indian himself, and, besides, he was an educated man. And it was that native part of himself that he felt could somehow deliver him from the terrible isolation and alienation he sensed whenever he pondered the shabbiness of his own existence. He felt that he had been a stranger in his own life for a long time, but now he could grasp something real, something alive and untamed, something not caught in the contemptuous self-deceit he knew as being “civilized.” For Robby, Cletus Packingstone had become a voice in the wilderness of modern life, a noble hero who would show him the way out of his own knotted despair.

As Cletus stepped from the bar, he rounded the building and turned toward Main Street. He could see Robby’s outline in the lawn chair in front of his pick-up. He stopped for a moment when he reached Main and took notice that the air was still as he drew in a deep breath before crossing the street.

Robby watched as Cletus walked across Main and appeared to be heading right towards him. As Cletus moved past the tailend of his pick-up, Robby became aware that Cletus was looking directly at him and was indeed coming to where he sat. Robby tensed for a moment and tried to reassure himself that everything was “okay.” But the sight of Cletus’ large physique looming in the moonlight before him was quite unsettling. For just a moment, Robby’s head buzzed with the thoughts of wild drunken Indians on the warpath; Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn; and the uncontrollable savage mind of the red man. He didn’t like those thoughts, but he couldn’t shake them. It was the fear of the unknown, and he tried desperately to compose his thoughts before he betrayed himself.

Cletus took a few more steps and was now standing directly in front of Robby. Robby clenched the arms of his chair and slowly lifted himself out of his seat to face Cletus. The two of them stood for a few silent moments peering into one another’s eyes. Then, ever so slowly, Cletus raised his head, tilting backwards and stared intently into the moonlit starry night sky. Robby hesitated for a second, but also looked up to ponder the heavens. The two of them stood there at arm length, peering into space. At last Robby relaxed, and just stood there, calm and serene, savoring the moment. Neither said anything, nor did either make any motion toward the other. Finally, with the stealth of a cat, Cletus turned and walked toward his pickup.

Robby stood quietly, still looking heavenward as Cletus returned to his truck. Cletus opened the door, got in and sat down behind the steering wheel. Robby’s gaze lowered to the moonlit pick-up, seeing clearly the silhouette of Cletus sitting upright between the windshield and rear window of the truck. He thought about how large and noble Cletus appeared in the moonlight, and he imagined him mounted on a painted pony, sitting on the crest of a high butte, overlooking the wide expanse of a moonlit open prairie.

As Robby was captured by his imaginary world of Indians on horseback out on the plain, Cletus simply sat in the cab of his ‘57 Ford pick-up truck. He peered out the windshield and mused for a moment about his brief, wordless encounter with the young man who was still standing and quietly looking skyward. Cletus glanced upward himself as he reached his right hand toward a gym bag on the seat beside him. He pulled a pistol from the bag, raised it to his head and pulled the trigger. In the same instant, Robby’s image of the plain’s horseman, the proud warrior, the icon of all that he thought to be “Indian,” died with Cletus’ last heartbeat.

There was no Kiowa drum beating, no throng of mourners from the community, and the Weatherford Daily News had only a line on the bottom of the front page that read, “Burns Flat Man Killed Saturday.” The story was the talk of the town for a few days or so, but no one really had much to say of any importance. The oil field service that Cletus had worked for sent Marie some flowers and a sympathy card, and Robby attended a quiet memorial service with her.

The warm September days waned, and were replaced by autumn’s chill. Robby hardly noticed the season’s change until the western wind blew in a foretaste of a bitter winter. Robby felt himself cower against the wind, as though he was being pursued by an angry demon. He felt the cold creeping into him and heard the wind singing its wintry dirge. He spent the entire fall and winter scurrying from one warm spot to the next. Wherever he went the biting chill stayed in him. He longed for warmth.

Throughout the winter Robby thought about Cletus. He thought about his quest to discover “Indians,” and why he had come to Weatherford. He thought about countless other things until they whirred around in his head like clutter being caught up in a cyclone. He sensed a loss within himself, accompanied by disappointment that he wasn’t able to glean any understanding of all that was swirling in his mind.

But, in the early spring, tired from a winter of fruitless thinking, Robby felt warmth. A new wind blew in a new feeling. For the first time in many years, Robby felt a peace. He realized that Cletus, in his own way, had helped to save the part of himself that he had struggled to discover. He now understood that whatever Indian that existed in him, Cletus had helped to keep it from becoming the grotesque and distorted image that had begun forming in his mind when he thought about being a real Indian. Robby had come to understand that Indians do not imagine, nor think their way through life, but they live as other human beings do. And, as humans, Indians have no special exemption from the tragedies that befall the most common of men.

Robby recognized and felt all these things in one afternoon, in early spring, while sitting in his lawn chair in front of his house. From that moment on, Robby, a descendant of the Turkey Clan of the Onondaga, could not live in pretense or complacency, without remembering how Cletus Packingstone chose not to be a part of coyote’s world anymore.