North Dakota

Suddenly, Suzan stopped taking to the taste of coffee or sweets.

Her grandmother has an eye on her from the stove and that makes Suzan believe that she knows. Suzan knows Wing knows. The dog. Wing used to sleep over Suzan’s belly in bed like a fat blanket but he has stopped. Now he sleeps very close to her side, with one paw resting somewhere between her belly and her small breasts. Like a boy.

Suzan, like most Cheyenne children, calls her grandmother Neskee. Neskee is whipping eggs with a fork in an old moo-moo and she is not speaking or singing. Her hair is down her back in a long greasy braid. Suzan is sitting by the screen door and it is the late afternoon, sunlight is filling the kitchen like boxes and out the door there is only ground and sky. Suzan’s feet are bare and she is rolling one foot over a cool can of beans and it feels good.

Neskee reaches for the sack of flour.

“Suzan no, stay put,” Suzan relaxes back into her chair. She goes back to rolling the can of beans with her foot.

The red truck hurries down the road with dust following like an entourage. It’s Suzan’s father. He has been drunk for days. Or for years. He does not slow, or turn to the trailer, but continues on. Who knows where he is going. Did Neskee see? Suzan did.

When Neskee finally puts the wet biscuits on the table she begins to talk.

“Suzan,” Neskee says having settled into the red plastic chair. She lets that word hang there like a jar hovering near a shelf but not on the shelf.

Finally Neskee goes, “How is it then?” That is not at all what Suzan thought she was going to say.

Suzan pulls off a piece of soaked biscuit and chews it slowly, “Neskee, it’s all the same.”

“How’s your brother?”

“Fine. He keeps trying for things, there was an opening at the gas station, so—”

Her shoulders are hunched forward. Her boulder hands rest on the table.

“And you?” Neskee pushes on. Suzan is 17 and just finished the 12th grade. In school she was book smart, everyone said so.

“I’m not sure yet.” That was true enough. Suzan surmised that she would continue working at Red Robin but didn’t know. At one point she was thinking of going to the state college in Bismarck, but she never finished sending her application materials. That was incredibly stupid, she knows that.

The Teach for America white English teacher, Mr. Stroble, held Suzan’s arm too firmly when she tried to walk out of his classroom that day after school when everything had already gone to hell and Suzan had stopped caring. He asked her to stay behind after class to see if she had heard back from the school.

“I did the essays but never sent in my resume, I never finished it,” she said. She was fingering her warm lip liner that was in her jean’s pocket, melting in her body’s heat.

Mr. Stroble just looked at her. He was no older than her brother. “Suzan,” he stopped, he continued. “Suzan I find that shocking. I find that awful.”

Suzan has a bad habit of unintentionally rolling her eyes, especially when she is uncomfortable.

Did she say “sorry” or “OK?” All she remembers is muttering something along those lines of general disinterest. She turned to leave. That’s when Mr. Stroble grabbed her upper arm. Tightly and pulled her back. Later she inspected her arm. There was a very light bruise from his pull. Nobody would ever notice it she could guarantee that. But she knew it was there. If someone would have cared she would have showed it to them so Mr. Stroble would get in trouble. But no one cared and wasn’t it just a few months ago when Suzan told Neskee Mr. Stroble was her favorite teacher? When Suzan showed her all the books her gave he for free, only if she promised to read them. Suzan would write little reports about the books for fun, no credit, and talk about them with Mr. Stroble after class. This feels like a very long time ago when Suzan was a young, stupid girl. What is the point of writing a report for no credit? For no money? Stupid.

“I know it’s difficult to understand this but by not even trying to get into school you have just narrowed your future. These decisions you are making, or are not making, get this through your head, they are doors. The older you get these opportunities become smaller and smaller. Increasingly small. Miniscule. Suzan you’re smart, you know you’re smart. It hurts me so much, this. What happened? I know something happened. You hadn’t fallen for all the idiotic bullshit everyone else on the rez falls for for so long.”

She wanted to laugh, how he had tried to slip in “the rez.” Moron. Thinking he speaks like us. This is his second year here, then he’s gone. Back to his real life. Suzan knows because Mr. Stroble confided in her, more than he should have probably, when she used to come in after class to show him those book reports.

Suzan thought that if someone cared enough to act as the judge they would say, “Suzan, this is not your fault.”

“You were almost out,” he said.

Neskee was looking at her with prying and focused eyes. That’s when Suzan realized with certainty that she didn’t know. The only reason she had walked all the way over here was because Neskee was an elder and if anyone could sense it, she ought to be able to. Suzan could tell Neskee sensed something, but not the whole thing. Suzan rubbed her belly. She kept rolling the can of beans with her foot.

When the sun went down Suzan stood up to go home. She stretched her legs. Neskee packed the rest of the biscuits for Suzan to carry home. She did not say anything but Neskee’s eyes were worried. If Suzan was going to say it she should say it now.

She thought about how Neskee’s eyes looked when she told her about Mr. Stroble and her book reports. Open and bright. Like two ponds covered in sun. This made her feel terrible, so she stopped. She left.

When Suzan finally neared her trailer she could see that her father was home. The windows were open and she could hear him banging around the kitchen. Suzan paused. She began to make small turns. She faced one direction, then slightly turned to face the other, she kept doing this very slowly until she had made a complete circle. Her father dropped something loudly. Suzan sat down onto the dry grass. It scratched her thighs. She stretched out and laid her back onto the grass. The grass pricked into her skin everywhere. She looked at the sky. All of the stars looked like little hearts; beating and alone.