The engine on the old Chrysler seemed to purr as Eli headed north. Miguel had a crack mechanic on his crew and they kept the car in tip-top shape in case Eli’s mother wanted to take it out for a spin. Phoenix was only a hundred and fifty miles from Flagstaff so Miguel wouldn’t be worried if he thought about Eli driving that far. But of course he wasn’t heading in that direction at all.
Route 89 was the only highway north out of Flagstaff, and Eli had been this way many times to visit his grandfather in Tuba City. The road would traverse the Navajo Nation until he reached the town of Page on the Arizona border, and from then on it would be unfamiliar territory.
It was almost ten o’clock by the time he left Flagstaff, and with only fifty miles to go he reached Cameron just after eleven. He drove across the suspended bridge to the trading post and decided to stop for some lunch before he got into the real desert.
The land in this area was flat and pretty barren, except for a few businesses and the residents who made their living off tourists. Cameron was a tourist haven, catering to those that drove up from the south with a desire to see the Painted Desert or the Grand Canyon which was only thirty minutes away.
But for many this was also a first look at the Navajo Nation and a perfect place to learn about these native people. The trading post had been there for almost a hundred years and understood what people from around the county and the world wanted to see. The place was a museum of Navajo craftwork and supported dozens of artisans.
Eli headed into the market for some lunch, shunning the restaurant which would probably be more expensive. He put together a sandwich, an apple and a box of cookies along with a few sodas to add to his cooler in the wagon. Then on a whim he bought a map of the western United States. All of that came to nearly twenty dollars which was a ridiculous amount of money. He sat in the garden beside the lodge under the shade of the live oaks and ate his lunch.
He was only a short drive from Tuba City, but they had visited his grandparents just three weeks ago. The couple lived in an adobe home surrounded by similar dwellings, all with modern conveniences like indoor plumbing. Still, about ten years ago the men had built a hogan dwelling several hundred yards behind the house on the edge of the desert.
It was there that traditional ceremonies took place. If there was one thing Grandpa Walter sought in his old age it was a return to the old ways of their ancestors. He was still a leader in the local chapter of the Nation and that gave him respect in town. But it was Walter’s father, who was gone before Eli was born, that brought the family the most acclaim. The man had been Hatalii, a Diné medicine man.
A medicine man was a healer and a keeper of traditions, ceremonies, and spiritual matters. Walter had grown up around those things even as he learned the ways of sheep ranching. His life was a blend of the old and the new, something Eli now understood to some small degree.
The spiritual traditions and folklore of the Diné were still a huge mass of ancient knowledge to a growing boy, especially since Eli wasn’t sure of his place within the clan structure. Navajo children are born to the mother’s clan, but born for the father’s clan. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Eli’s mother wasn’t of the Diné at all.
Pete Begay was of the Bitter Water Clan because of his mother, but born for the Bead People Clan because of his father. There were associations with other clans because of the grandparents which left a never ending string of aunts, uncles and cousins who could claim a relationship. It was confusing enough that Eli didn’t know how any of it affected his relationship to the Diné, but they accepted him as one of their own.
His mother’s family was of English descent, the standard colonial family that had moved to the New World in centuries past. But Begay was a very common name among the Diné and just being of that family told of Eli’s native roots. He just wasn’t sure if he belonged to a specific clan.
Eli’s sisters had undergone the Kinaaldá, a coming of age ceremony held by Walter and several of the elder women. The matriarchal traditions of the Diné were strong, but there was no traditional coming of age ceremony for boys. Each family had their own view on that and some things were passed down from father to son.
Perhaps that would have helped Eli understand himself better as a member of the Diné. The culture was all around him and yet felt distant. Nothing would help him come to terms with being gay.
Once he had become a teenager Eli spent weeks of time up in Tuba City with his grandfather, sleeping in the simple shelter of the hogan. Around a campfire he had listened to Walter tell stories about the Diné. As native history and spiritual beliefs go, The People had some very strong ideals about their past. Schools on Nation land taught language and beliefs, something Eli didn’t get in the Arizona public school system.
But Walter recounted the legends of creation and spoke about how as a people the Diné were tied to the land. Raising sheep and corn had spiritual value and followed a long line of tradition dating back to the beginning. The songs he sang and the lore he revealed were fascinating, but then Walter laughed when he admitted that he had never been able to dance.
There were yearly pow-wows, most of them held up in Window Rock. Thousands of native people and tourists from across the country came to see the dancing and ceremonies, but that was the public face of the Diné. Like many of the southwestern natives the Diné had private rituals, many of them held inside a hogan and away from prying eyes.
The most sacred of ceremonies was the Blessingway. Sacred because it was handed down to the people by the Holy Ones who had created this world. The chants of the ceremony were an ancient tie to the creation myths, the spiritual heart of Diné belief. Because of that it was most widely used to sanctify the important events of life.
Eli had seen the ceremony several times and knew that Walter had gathered several clan members to perform the rituals when Ruth was pregnant with her first boy. It was the major connection Eli had with his heritage, and his grandfather would never let him forget it.
Perhaps Walter would understand this little journey of self-discovery. But Eli wasn’t going to tell him about it, not yet anyway. He didn’t want to dawdle in Cameron all day…it was time to get back on the road.
On his way out of the trading post Eli spotted a bumper sticker and picked it up. It was only three dollars so he paid and carried it out to the wagon. The Arizona license plate held the image of the desert and declared them to be the Grand Canyon State. Eli applied the Navajo Nation symbol on the bumper above it. He didn’t think his mother would mind.
He had driven only fifty miles but Eli was already feeling more freedom than he had in years. He spread the map out and looked at the route he had chosen. It would take him through mountains and vast plains, twisting and turning across five states. U.S.89 had a colorful past as one of the main routes running north-south.
He could have chosen a faster highway north. Interstate 15 ran almost parallel once he reached Utah. But 70 miles per hour was hardly the way to see the country or meet any of the people along the way. And then there were the National Parks, Route 89 went through most of them.
It was another hour and a half drive to Page, and the Arizona border. The radio station he’d been listening to faded out and he reached for his case of disks. He’d collected dozens of albums over the years, but only brought about half of them with him for the trip.
He had not considered where he would spend the night. Salt Lake City up in Utah was still six or seven hours away and that seemed too far to travel in one afternoon. Maybe if he had more experience then something like that wouldn’t feel intimidating, but for now it was just too far. And then it occurred to him, could a sixteen year old boy rent a motel room without an adult present? Crap…that would be an aggravation.
He had passed the cutoff to Tuba City and ventured onwards through the scrub covered desert surrounded by sandstone hills and the occasional house set way back off the highway. Why would anyone want to live way out here? The western part of the Navajo Nation looked dry and unproductive, not even sheep could survive in this terrain. But it was land owned by a proud people who would never again give up an inch of their territory.
Page was a tourist town, and the highway was slathered with fast food restaurants and motels spread out on the approaches to the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. But the highway bypassed the town and Eli stuck to his route and entered the park surrounding the canyon crossing.
The highway suddenly crossed a bridge high above the canyon with the dam and Lake Powell stretching out into the distance. Eli took a few quick glimpses and then focused on the road in front. It was too dangerous to rubberneck on the bridge, especially with the large trucks that dotted the highway.
Traffic had been light so far even though this was the peak tourist season. But there were a great variety of colorful license plates, things he used to notice more when he was younger. But those were times before he was the one behind the wheel. Ten miles further on a sign flashed by, he was now in Utah.
The vast flatlands of Arizona gave way to…the vast flatlands of Utah…no wait, there were hills in the distance. The town of Big Water didn’t seem to be much, except the speed limit dropped to fifty-five and there was a county sheriff’s car sitting under a shade tree on a side road. Eli glanced at the speedometer and smiled, he was only doing the speed limit.
The wagon’s Arizona plates wouldn’t attract any attention around here, but perhaps by the time he hit Montana they would be a curiosity. Out-of-state plates always seemed to attract the cops, or so he had been told by his father. The road was heading west now, another one of those long jogs through the scrub covered desert before it entered yet another stretch of parkland.
Soon enough the road held a steady upwards slant as Route 89 delved deeper into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park. The elevation was noticeable because the landscape changed. The brush up here was greener and there were entire forests of trees set against the mountain backdrop. Eli stopped the wagon long enough to take a few photos and covertly water a bush.
Seventy miles later the highway ran out of the park and straight into Kanab where it took some turns before it headed back north. To Eli this finally felt like some progress. Gas stations and fast food places dotted the highway, along with the variety stores and markets a town would need to survive.
Hills loomed in the distance, more layers of sandstone covered in small trees. The desert was behind him now and the scenery was dotted with small lakes and streams. North of Kanab he ran through a series of small towns. Each of them were nestled off the roadway cut into the hills and consisted of a few houses and a gas station.
That reminded him, and Eli saw that his gas gauge showed the tank was below half. Maybe he would have to spend all his money on gas for the trip. But he had run the air conditioning back in the desert and now he shut it off. He rolled down the windows as he passed a sign for yet another park. He would get some gas in the next town.
It was probably good that state and the federal governments had created so many of these parks. That was made apparent by the sign off to one side that advertised two hundred acre mountain lots for sale. No town, just lots out in the middle of nowhere.
The next major town up the road was Panguitch. By now Eli was feeling the excitement wearing off. Driving was a chore and perhaps he should just take it easy since this was only the first day. Just south of Panguitch he saw the sign for the KOA campground.
Places like that had amenities like bathrooms and showers. If he was going to feel refreshed after a night in a sleeping bag then a shower was mandatory. He pulled into the entrance to the campground and saw a sea of campers and recreational vehicles. It would have been cool to take this trip in one of those, but not if he was doing all the driving.
The office for the place was in a small cinderblock building and Eli parked out front. Rates for the various campsites were posted on the wall beside the door, and twenty-five dollars for a single site didn’t seem too steep for his budget.
A smiling lady stood behind the counter with a name tag that said ‘Kathy.’
“Hello….Welcome to KOA,” she said. But Eli could see her eyes were on the door. “Are your parents coming in?”
“Um, they had to use the bathroom,” Eli said. “Can I register and pay you?”
Kathy smiled. “All grown up and taking charge are you? I’m sorry, but we need an adult to register and provide identification.”
“Oh…okay,” Eli said. “I’ll go see what’s keeping them.”
Eli slid back behind the wheel and drove back to the highway. Damn, he should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. Route 89 became Main Street with a 40 mph speed limit, but there was a Chevron station and Eli pulled in to top off the tank. He parked the car beside the pumps and used his ATM card to get things rolling.
His bank account had plenty of money in it since there was little he ever had to pay for at home. All those Christmas and birthday checks added up over time, but his father often dropped money in his hand after a particular period of hard work. He was family and didn’t expect to get paid for his chores, but his father saw it differently.
Gas was hovering around three dollars a gallon which meant a full tank would cost him about sixty dollars…wow, that was awful. But keeping the tank full seemed like a good idea in case he ran into trouble. Panguitch was a funny name, but Eli could sense it was associated with one of the Native American tribes.
There had been a considerable number of houses on his way in. Whole neighborhoods of people lived here. As he pumped the gas he looked up the street and saw a well-developed downtown area. This was starting to look like a small city, but he didn’t know what would give a place that designation.
It was after four o’clock by now and Eli had been on the road almost seven hours. Soon he would have to stop for dinner and put some food in his stomach which would make him lethargic. Damn…no place to sleep. He pulled out the map and spread it on the hood to look at the road ahead.
Salina was seventy-five miles away and that was about as far as Eli figured he could go for the day. Route 89 had been a pleasant drive but slow compared to the interstate. Now he was definitely in unfamiliar territory. Just up the road Route 89 merged with Interstate 70 and he would have to travel the larger highway for some distance.
Interstates meant more truck traffic and Eli hated the way those big rigs blew past him with a pressure wave of air that shook the wagon every time. Even at the speed limit, several of them had come right up on his rear bumper before blowing past as if he were standing still. It was surprising that those drivers didn’t get caught speeding, but he had yet to see a cop pull one over.
He folded the map and looked up in time to see a young man walk past the gas station. College boy with a backpack, and Eli wondered where he was going. He’d seen several people walking beside the road on the way here, but they looked like locals just off to the store. This guy was different.
Eli should have known his age was going to be the main problem. He knew a couple of seniors, eighteen year olds who might have come along for the ride. But neither of them was a very good companion and Eli could only imagine them talking him to death along the way.
He had set out to meet people on this trip but he wasn’t sure how he was going to make that happen. But someone out there would have the answers he needed, if he could only find them. Picking up a stranger on the road might be dangerous, but he didn’t think college boys fit that description.
The college guy crossed the intersection and kept heading north along the highway. Eli moved the wagon away from the pumps and then parked so he could go inside and use the bathroom. He had consumed most of the water and sodas in his cooler, forcing him to pull over and relieve himself along the highway several times. Fortunately he could see for miles along the road so no one had caught him peeing in the ditch.
He bought a few more sodas and a six pack of water, which meant he needed more ice. The wagon had a five gallon can of water lashed inside the tailgate in case the radiator boiled over but he probably wouldn't need it. He’d brought a sleeping bag, first aid kit and some nutrition bars for emergency situations. Wide open spaces were nice to look at, but they could also be very lonely if anything bad happened.
He packed the cooler and got back behind the wheel. Maybe the college boy would be up the road with his thumb out. Or not, he’d seen the signs back at the state line that said hitchhiking was illegal. But he pulled out of the station and waited for the light. The college boy was slowly walking along right at the edge of town.
Eli slowed down and the guy turned to look, smiling when he saw who was behind the wheel. Moving the wagon to the curb, Eli came to a stop and saw the boy quicken his step.
“Arizona, huh,” the boy said. “How far you going?”
“Salt Lake City,” Eli said. If this didn’t work out then he wouldn’t have to put up with the guy for hundreds of miles.
“I’m going to Salina. Are you giving me a ride?”
“Sure,” Eli heard himself say, and he was committed.
The boy slid into the passenger’s seat and looked around the car.
“Nice wheels, old as hell, but in great shape. I’m Mathias Yazzie, by the way.”
“Eli Begay. Yazzie is a name I’ve heard in the Navajo Nation.”
“I’ve heard that too…guess my family got around,” Mathias said.
Eli checked the road before pulling back into the lane and heading out of town. Mathias wore a button down denim shirt and washed jeans. He had shaggy dark hair and his complexion proved he was of Native American descent.
“What brings you up from Arizona?” Mathias asked.
“Adventure,” Eli said, and then he laughed. “I just had to get away.”
“Boy, have I been there,” Mathias replied with his own laugh. “No offense…but you are a bit young to be off on your own.”
“Timing, I had the chance and took it. If my parents catch me I might be grounded until I’m eighteen. What are you doing out here?”
“Friend almost died in my hometown. I went back to see him.”
“That’s sad, sorry,” Eli said.
“Shit happens. So, Begay…a Navajo name but you have some white blood in there somewhere.”
“Dad is Navajo, Mom is all white bread.”
“I’m Paiute on my mother’s side and a full blooded mess on my father’s side. Still, it makes me a hundred percent Indian. So you’re a half blood, that counts for something…we’re brothers.”
Eli smiled. “You’re the first Paiute I ever met. Where is your ancestral home?”
“Right here, Utah. My family is in Beaver on the other side of that mountain. Farmers mostly, corn, alfalfa, barley, feed grains. I was raised around cows and women…sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.”
Eli laughed. “Whoa, my mother and sisters would kill me if I said that.”
“Oh, I like women, just not all the ones in my family,” Mathias said. “I had my first woman when I was fourteen, my second when I was fourteen, and so on. Girls at my school…well, their daddies grew hay and we rolled in it.”
He smiled. “You know what Mathias means?” And Eli shook his head. “Gift of God. My mother named me that and I tried to prove it with every girl in town.”
“Oh…I hope you didn’t make babies along the way,” Eli said.
“Could have, but I spent my allowance on condoms. Just going home brought back some memories I would just as soon forget. But Neil got real sick and his Momma said he was dying. Let’s talk about something else.”
“You live in Salina now?” Eli asked.
“I do for now. My aunt runs a restaurant so at least you can get a free meal when we get there. I owe you that much.”
“I do need dinner…but I need a place to stay tonight. I don’t suppose the motels will be inclined to let a sixteen year old register,” Eli said.
“That will be your problem, but you can crash with me for the night. My aunt’s place is pretty empty since my uncle died. Think about it, I don’t know what your plans are.”
“I don’t have a plan, can’t you tell?”
“You definitely need a plan, but we have about an hour of road time to figure this out. Why are you going to Salt Lake…you have relatives there?”
Eli shook his head. Mathias was cool so it was time to tell the truth.
“I’m just out driving and Salt Lake was the only big city I could think of when you asked. I…my real objective is to go all the way to the Canadian border and then go home.”
Mathias laughed and shook his head. “You are one crazy man, you know that? Are you planning to take 89 all the way there?”
“I am…what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, it’s just a slow road. But you’ll get to see a lot of scenery along the way and you’ll feel like a tourist.”
“I am a tourist,” Eli replied. “I feel like a tourist in life, everything is just passing by like the scenery.”
“Yeah, I felt like that too, and then I graduated high school and had to make choices. I went to see my aunt in Salina, she offered me a job. I enrolled at Snow College up in Ephraim. You’ll go through there on your way north. It’s a two year school and I’m in my second year studying farm management…but that’s not what I want to do for a living. I just can’t bring myself to tell Dad I can’t be a farmer.”
Mathias fell silent and Eli was about to explain that’s how he felt about sheep.
“I want to be a chef…study cooking,” Mathias said. “I know, that sounds gay or something.”
“No, I don’t think that’s gay at all,” Eli said. “Those guys make big money and work in large cities…they even get whole television shows.”
“Neil is gay…that’s what nearly killed him,” Mathias said.
More silence. Eli was almost sure Mathias regretted saying that. There had been nothing in their conversation to lead them in this direction.
“I had a gay friend, he went to Los Angeles after he graduated,” Eli said.
Mathias nodded. “I don’t get that whole gay thing. I’m sorry, Eli, this is really the wrong thing to talk about with someone like you.”
“Why is that? I had one gay friend, that’s it. He was cool. Taught me all about photography so I could join the yearbook staff.”
“Neil was different,” Mathias said. “We had been friends since third grade and I didn’t know he was gay. He came out to me in tenth grade and…and I felt cheated. I got so mad at him… it was like everything we had shared was a lie.
“We didn’t talk for two years, but then I was too busy fucking my way through a list of every girl in town. He got sick last year his Momma said and they didn’t tell anyone. Then he went in the hospital and they said he had AIDS. I didn’t go visit and he got worse, and then last month she told me he was dying.”
Eli had his eyes on the road, but he could hear the sadness in Mathias’ voice.
“I had to go see him. I didn’t want to, but I had to. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Neil didn’t look like the person I remembered, he already looked like a ghost. They have him on some miracle drug and he’ll get better, but his life is going to be a whole lot different.
“I guess his Momma panicked but I’ve always liked her so we hugged, and I couldn’t let go. I haven’t cried like that since I was a baby…”
The conversation died away leaving them both with nothing but road noise rolling through the open windows. Eli saw the sign for Interstate 70 which was ten miles ahead.
“About forty miles to go,” Mathias said. “What is it about your family that you’re running away from?”
“My family is in sheep…sheep ranchers,” Eli replied. “I don’t see myself doing that. I have a good life at home. Flagstaff all summer, Yuma in the winter. It isn’t the moving around I hate…I just don’t like sheep. I don’t think I’m running away…I just want to run toward something else.”
“Then you’ll find it,” Mathias said. “It takes courage to turn away from something your family offers you. Finish high school but don’t stop looking for that dream.” And here Mathias laughed. “Listen to me offering sage advice. I’m only nineteen and we’re pretty much in the same boat.”
“The boat isn’t sinking, Mathias…we just pulled away from the dock.”
That comment brought a smile. “Ah, a philosopher. I’m a musician.”
“Really? I’m a listener, nothing more,” Eli said. “Do you play an instrument?”
“Guitar…had to do something to entertain all those ladies.”
It was five-thirty when they merged onto the Interstate. There was no rush hour out here; in fact, there was nothing around the interchange at all. But now there were two lanes in each direction and the speed limit went back up. Eli tensed up as the first of a line of large tractor-trailer rigs shot on by.
Mathias had discovered the case of CD’s and pawed through them. “You have eclectic taste in music, I’ll say that much. No country tunes?”
“The ranch hands go for that south of the border stuff and I think country music is boring,” Eli said.
Mathias chose a disk and slid it into the player. The sounds of Coldplay emerged from the speakers. “Wish I could sing like that, but I know the guitar parts pretty well,” he said.
“I’m getting hungry. What kind of food does your aunt’s restaurant have?”
“Mom’s Café. She started off with home cooking and then I came along. Does that answer your question?” Mathias asked.
“I’d love a good steak,” Eli replied.
“Then that’s what you’ll get.”
The first sign for Salina appeared a short while later, and Eli took the exit which put them back on Route 89. It was a small town, and looked like it had seen better days. Mathias had him turn right on Main Street and park along the curb half a block down.
“Well, here we are…isn’t much, but I like the people,” he said.
His aunt’s place was two stories high with the restaurant on the first floor and the living quarters above. ‘Mom’s Cafe’ was painted on the wall that faced the street, but Mathias motioned around the side of the building towards a staircase.
“Why don’t you grab your stuff and we’ll go upstairs first. I need a shower and a change of clothes. I imagine you’d like that as well. Then we’ll come down and have dinner.”
“Sounds good,” Eli said.
They rolled up the windows and locked the doors before Eli pulled his bag out of the back. Mathias led the way up the stairs and into the apartment. Living-dining room and kitchen, with a hallway leading to what must be bedrooms. The apartment was small, well kept, and the furniture was old.
“You take the bathroom first,” Mathias said, “then we’ll go down for food.”
Eli carried his bag into the bathroom and dug out some clean underwear and a shirt. The hot water felt incredibly good as he showered. It hadn’t been a long trip, but the miles had worn him down. He knew the excitement would fade after a few days if the routine didn’t change.
Having Mathias along this afternoon had helped Eli focus, but tomorrow he would venture on alone. He still had almost nine hundred miles to go before he reached…what? The miles weren’t important, but his objective was self-discovery.
Michael had started the process and then left before Eli could reach any understanding of his feelings. Gay was the issue, and Michael had been so self-assured…so mature in his thinking. There had been moments when Eli thought Michael might get physical. They found one another attractive so why didn’t it happen?
Eli knew he wasn’t ready for it and he had denied having gay feelings. Did Michael really believe that? It didn’t matter now, did it? Michael had thrown up a barricade because of their age difference and what something like that would do to the friendship. That was the mature response and probably the right way to think about their relationship.
Eli’s uncertainty had made Michael doubt the wisdom of any shared sex. Instead they both poured those sexual feelings out on film. But that had been a singular event and Eli had been hesitant to capture the images, although he finally did an outstanding job through the lens.
“You have an eye for composition…I think you’re going to be a better photographer than I am,” Michael had said that day when the film was developed.
The soft tones of black and white Eli favored had done a remarkable job of reducing the drab industrial background of the print shop into a wonder of light and shadow. Michael’s body lying on a dull steel table had become a complete study in contrast when Eli doused the boy with a bucket of water.
Pools of water on the table and Michael’s body had reflected the light from the overhead skylights and made the image starkly raw. Eli thought it the finest photo he had ever taken and Michael agreed. It was at that moment of wonder which made Eli understand that he needed an answer about himself. Then a month later Michael was off to California.
Those photos and that final kiss were all that he had to evaluate the feelings Michael left behind. Gay was not something Eli could define alone, he was sure of that now. He got out of the shower and dried off, and as he looked in the mirror over the sink Eli asked his image the same question that had been on his lips for weeks.
“Am I gay?”
What Mathias had said about his friend Neil was disturbing, but then AIDS was something they had discussed in health class. They had medication for that now…but AIDS was scary. There were ways to prevent the disease…what had gone wrong? He couldn’t ask and perhaps Mathias didn’t even know.
Eli dressed and vacated the bathroom. Mathias looked ready for his own shower and so Eli went into the living room to wait. There were several photographs in frames hanging on the wall that he studied. A man and woman in one that Eli judged to be the aunt and her deceased husband. But it was the old photos that drew his attention.
Native Americans throughout the southwest dressed pretty much the same, but that was because they were limited by the things at hand to make clothing. The Paiute and the Diné were neighbors, and so their clothing and crafts looked very much alike. But there was one photo that drew Eli’s scrutiny. It was a young boy in full dance regalia, and Eli recognized Mathias’ face.
Musician and dancer…the boy had an exceptional amount of talent. Then Eli discovered the trophies and ribbons on a shelf beside the television. ‘First Place, 14 and under, Traditional Dance. 34th USU Pow-Wow’ was engraved on one trophy’s plaque. Damn, Mathias was really good. But that was five years ago, and Eli could find nothing new.
Mathias finally appeared in the room and caught Eli looking at the photos.
“You were a dancer, that’s pretty amazing,” Eli said.
“It was an experience that’s for sure. Took a lot of time and practice, and I ran out of both,” Mathias said. “Those are some of the Yazzie family members back in the 1930’s, and my aunt and uncle.”
“No school photos, no friends?” Eli asked.
Mathias leaned over and pulled an album off the lower shelf, handing it to Eli. “Knock yourself out,” he said.
Eli sat on the couch and opened the book. Amateur photos, the kind parents take. Mathias as a baby, a small child and then finally the school photos. The boy at around seven with a guitar in hand, so he had started playing very early. But there was another boy in almost every photo, either standing close or leaning over Mathias’ shoulder. Eli guessed it was Neil.
They were similar in looks, although Neil was not full blood Paiute. His features were softer, less Native American.
“I would guess this is Neil…was one of his parents white?” Eli asked.
“Yeah, that’s Neil. His father was, married a native girl and caused an uproar in the family,” Mathias said.
Eli smiled. “My mother did the same thing.”
Mathias sighed and sat down on the couch. “Neil had a crush on me in those early days together. My mother pointed that out to me because I didn’t understand the boy. She said every boy needs a hero and that Neil had chosen me.
“He danced because I did, and he even made an attempt to learn the guitar. I tried to be patient with him, but there were fights. Those were silly little encounters we both soon forgot, but then puberty came along. We experimented together like most kids will, but Neil enjoyed it more than I did.
“And then Elaine Bird awakened me to the pleasures of intercourse. Neil was mad when I shut him out of my sex life and we stopped talking for a while. The kid stuff was over, and I think all the girls were my reaction to Neil. But I didn’t pay him much attention for the longest time and that was a huge mistake.
“I became concerned when I realized Neil had stopped coming to school and so I called his mom. I had always liked her and since I had spent so much time around Neil she was like a second mother to me. But now she was quiet on the phone and wouldn’t tell me anything about Neil.
“My father found out first and told me Neil had been sent up to Provo for mental health treatment. I was shocked to learn he had tried to kill himself. Did you know there were over four thousand kids who killed themselves last year and a lot of them were gay? I didn’t know what to think about why Neil might do something like that...he hadn’t told me yet.
“Tenth grade came along and Neil was back in school. That was the year he told me he was gay. I challenged that since I didn’t think he’d been dating any guys, but then he told me what he had been doing. It seems Neil was hanging out at the truck stop on the Interstate and getting it on with the truckers who would pay for it. Neil was sixteen and just plain stupid. I’m sure that’s where he got the AIDS.
“So now you know,” Mathias said. “I don’t hate gay people, but I do hate the guys who would give AIDS to a fifteen or sixteen year old boy. I hope your gay friend is a lot smarter, and if you talk to him again then you ought to remind him to stay safe.”
Mathias smiled. “So, now that I’ve freaked you out why don’t we go down and get something to eat?”
Mathias’ Aunt Ilene was a hefty middle-aged woman, and without a doubt one of the strong forces in the Yazzie family. She hugged Mathias, and then when introduced to Eli gave him a hug that just about broke some ribs.
There were a dozen customers in the place, most of them drinking coffee or soda since Mom’s Café served no alcohol. But the main dinner time was past for these folks, it was time to be sociable. Mathias greeted many of them by name and left Eli at a table while he made his way back to the kitchen. That was an open invitation for Ilene to sit down with him.
“So who’s been cooking while Mathias went home?” Eli asked. He figured to take the conversation in a safe direction before the woman began examining him closely.
“I have Juanita in the kitchen. She does the Mexican dishes best, but Mathias has taught her a lot about American food.”
Eli smiled. “He never told me where he learned to cook.”
“That boy is a natural born cook…most amazing thing I ever saw. My sister says he started cooking when he was about four years old and could barely reach the top of the stove. Some people just have the knack for it, but he’s been a blessing for me. I’ll be sorry to see his school start up again.”
“He lives in a dorm?”
“Oh no, he only takes classes three days a week. Ephraim is only a forty minute drive, he still lives with me. I would have to close this place if he wasn’t here on the weekends. I’ve been running this place for thirty-five years. Don’t know what else I would do.”
She smiled at him and Eli knew she was curious. “Where are you going?” Ilene asked.
“Just a short journey,” Eli said. “I’m playing tourist.”
“You seek answers, but I don’t think you even know what questions to ask. Mathias was like that when he first came here but he has learned a lot about himself. Is there peace in your family?”
“Peace? Yes, I suppose so,” Eli said. “My parents run a sheep ranch and that’s their main focus, but I don’t think that’s what I want.”
“So you feel like a lost sheep running away from the flock,” Ilene said. “There is security in numbers, in people of your own kind. This is where you will find your own peace.”
Did she mean among the Diné or the gay world? How could she know what was on his mind? Mathias was the driving force behind her restaurant and this was a family affair. Perhaps this wasn’t what Mathias wanted to do in life, but at least it wasn’t farming. Here he could hone his skills and keep a family enterprise alive, but then he still had his dream.
“Boys need to dream, and with it comes understanding,” Ilene said, rising from her chair and patting Eli’s arm. “Remember your dreams and the wisdom you will find within them. There is great truth in dreams and sometimes our spirits are given the answers we seek.”
Eli was shocked by her statement as he watched her make her way across the restaurant towards the kitchen. There was something about the woman and her words, another life lesson. Michael had gone off to California in search of his dream, and it seems Mathias was still in pursuit of that time in life when he could be a great chef.
Walter had always cautioned that the best things in life didn’t happen overnight and he believed in dreams. But Eli’s great-grandfather was Hatalii and the life of a medicine man was filled with dreams of the spirit world. Walter knew all about it but had chosen a different path…a different truth for himself.
Eli wondered how much patience he would need to reach his own moment of truth. In people of your own kind, Ilene had said. Where would he ever find people like that?