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The buffalo arrived on the island at daybreak.
From where he stood, on the deck of a seaside hotel built by a chewing-gum baron, Indian #9 watched as crates were lowered from the ship by toady, copper-necked men in wool. Back inside, the other actors were still in bed, comatose and saddle-sore, but Indian #9 had lain awake all night, listening to the waves sucking at the sand below. In a few hours he’d be in bronzer and a wig, mouthing his very first line of dialogue to the excited crank of the camera. He’d risen early and crept down to the washroom to practice his expressions in the shaving mirror, but the sight of his face had only made him more nervous, so he’d gone up to the deck to catch a glimpse of the animals instead. Pulleys lurched and squealed as the crates, each as big as an automobile, swung off the ship and rocked above the water. He saw blue snouts blossom between the planks and nuzzle the sunlight, twitching at the fetor of seaweed that lay scrapped on the beach in black, wormy festoons.
Soon, back home at the DeLuxe Theatre, everyone would see him speak again—his mother, his sister, the neighbors—all crowded onto those stained velveteen seats, squinting through the roiling dust at his face, two stories high. And here was his co-star, ferried like a treasure through the rough and stinging surf, borne ashore in a box stamped Property of Paramount Studios.
Indian #9’s voice was gassed out of him in a trench in the Argonne Forest. After the war he’d left Chicago and come to California; with no voice, he decided to seek work in the movies. Because of his bulk—broad shoulders, bullish jaw, fists as big as pumpkins—he’d spent the past few months playing bad guys, all scowls and grimaces and bared teeth. A wrinkle had formed between his eyes from looking mean all the time, and the burglar makeup had started to leave permanent raccoon stains around his eyes. He rented a little bachelor suite on McCadden, with a view of the Chinese laundry and a tattoo parlor. His day-jobs were always a quick ride away, down in the flatlands of Hollywood or up the Cahuenga Pass. But this role was different. He’d traveled out to Catalina Island and stayed overnight with a millionaire’s view of the sea. He’d nabbed his first line, and his very own intertitle. (His mother had seen everything he’d ever been in, but between the well-traveled prints and her runny, myopic eyes, she’d never managed to distinguish him among the gray swarm of bodies onscreen.) All night he’d flopped nervously on the hotel sheets, flexing his lips over his teeth, working his tongue over each syllable, imagining what the words would look like when they were projected—a giant, luminous stanza, so tall it would touch the toes of the griffins on the theater proscenium.
If he were in Chicago now, he’d be in his old fleece jacket and too-small hat, prying slabs of ice from the steps of the boarding house, haggling with Zielke over their account at the delicatessen. But here the air was damp and fragrant, rich with brine and eucalyptus and cactus flowers. Last night he’d begun a letter to Private Olivieu about his new role—how the buffalo had been shipped all the way from the Dakotas, how he’d even met a real Chumash Indian on set, a mummy-faced old man who smelled like sage and tinned beef. That’s the kind of stuff Olivieu would like—Olivieu, who used to keep him awake in the bivouac at night with stories about vigilante sharpshooters felling hot-air balloons from the sky, or an elephant that escaped from the Bronx Zoo and was found paddling merrily down the Hudson, all the way to the Statue of Liberty. It was hard to tell if anything Olivieu said was actually true or not, but when that lilting voice started up in the cot beside him, Indian #9 always listened in spite of himself, laughing softly into the grain of his rucksack. Private Oli-vieu could rattle off the name and caliber of every pistol fired at the OK Corral, and claimed to have had a short, spectacular career as a one-man band on the Cincinnati vaudeville circuit. It was Olivieu, more than anyone, who would love the idea of him masquerading in feathers in front of the camera. His sister had only written, Why didn’t they make you a cowboy instead?
Inside, the other actors stirred; soon he’d walk back into a sweet-smelling fog of aftershave and cigarettes. But no matter how many pleasantries they shared during morning ablutions—a casual word while they mopped their chins and slicked their hair—this was not the army. They stood side-by-side, polite but distant. They gazed aloofly out the window and waited for telegrams from girls they would see the following week. They practiced calisthenics alone on the deck. They sipped coffee from monogrammed teacups and sniffed over the latest issue of Screenland. Sometimes Indian #9 wondered if their averted eyes, their bored, inward sighs, the habitual checking of their pocket-watches, didn’t somehow hinge on him—maybe the fact that he couldn’t speak had, in a way, silenced everyone else.
On the esplanade below, the crew was starting to load the equipment into trucks. They took swigs from canteens and joked mildly in the early light. Indian #9 thought he heard the buffalo bleat in their cages—a stuttering, tuneless rumble, like a motor that wouldn’t start.
Someone sidled up next to him and leaned over the balustrade. “I read somewhere that bison tongues were once used as hairbrushes.”
He looked over to see a young man about his age, freshly awake, sipping a cup of coffee and staring out at the water. Indian #9 turned around to see whom he was talking to, but there was no one else there.
The man breathed in the steam from his coffee and sighed. “Their skin was made into factory belts, too.”
Indian #9 stared at him—bathrobed, blonde hair sleepily askew, bare feet turning pink on the cold granite. Now began the long, uneasy pause when he was supposed to answer. This man would expect gruffness from him, a baritone. Back before the war, Indian #9 had delivered newspapers to the stoops of Ashland Avenue, and his voice had echoed richly among the chatter of sewing machines and washline arias. But now he could only sigh and hiss and pop his lips, like a sputtering spigot someone forgot to turn off. (The last word he spoke, right before the gas, had been a retort to one of Olivieu’s stories: baloney. That’s it. Sometimes he woke up at night, stuttering and apoplectic. Baloney? He couldn’t think of anything more than that?)
Delicately he cleared his throat, put on his “thoughtful” face and offered the man an awestruck whistle, a rolling wheel of sound: No kidding!
“Did you know a baby bison can stand up just minutes after it’s born?” The man turned and smiled at him. His eyes were gray and wet, like summer storm clouds. A stray curl stood up from his forehead. Indian #9 whistled again, this time ascending, a question: Is that so? But under the man’s hot, dewy gaze, it came out warbling and thin.
“In a few hours they’re able to walk. Then, a few hours later, they can run.” He swirled his coffee and looked back to the sea. “From the day they’re born, they’re running.”
Indian #9 drummed his fingers awkwardly on the balustrade. He wished he could say something wry or profound at this point, but all he heard was the air rattling in and out of his throat. He dropped his hands and twisted them deep into his pockets. The water disappeared from view as he turned, red-faced, away. Before he knew it, he was loping back towards the terrace doors, staring at the granite passing underfoot. Everything seemed very bright and far away, as if he were watching the scene from a great height. He wanted to look back, but he couldn’t; his body was stricken, his whole face alive with heat.
So he went back inside and finished his letter, in a firm hand on thick hotel stationery, then put it in his suitcase next to the others, all bundled and unsent, and thought about how the movie stars, who were waking, would really have tickled Olivieu, who was dead.
Indian #9 had only been on a horse once before, as a boy. Every year around Easter the gangsters would arrive on Ashland with gifts for the children: a morning of maple cakes, magic tricks, and pony rides. They even hired a real photographer to take portraits of the kids against a canvas backdrop, atop a horse named War Paint. As a boy, one gangster in particular had fascinated him—not the garlicky, potbellied giants who kissed the mothers’ cheeks and slipped dollar bills into their aprons—but the reedy one who hung back near the photography booth, smoking perfumed cigarettes and blotting his eyes with a handkerchief. This man, ashen but handsome, helped Indian #9 into the saddle—those gentle hands hooked under his armpits; that silk suit flashed like water in the sun. Indian #9, mortified by his own cardboard shoes (made from a cereal box and tied with butcher string), refused to put his feet in the stirrups. He waited while the picture was snapped, the gangster’s hand hovering behind him to keep him from falling, his mother smiling delightedly behind the camera. Then the gangster helped him down again, and their eyes met—a moment of frank, silent, unhurried recognition—until Indian #9, nauseous with a perplexing shame, broke away and ran into the crowd. When he looked back, the gangster was alone, standing apart from the revelry. He lit a cigarette, and his hands were so delicate and white they seemed to disappear in the sunlight, until only a disembodied bulb of tobacco glowed. The kids called him Il fantasma.
Back then Indian #9 was teased constantly—for his straw-like arms and chicken legs, for shoes that turned to pulp in the rain, for a hand-me-down coat that had belonged to his sister, for trundling home from Mr. Zielke’s with groceries too heavy to carry, his cheeks red and slimy with sweat. A long-lashed, leaky-nosed mama’s boy. The only way to survive, he thought, was to change. So he started lifting paint cans in the dead scrubgrass of the yard, swimming the canals during the summer, eating his bread with a pat of lard coaxed from the side of the frying pan. Whenever his father stumbled home, Indian #9 would earn a few pennies stashing empty gin bottles in the neighbors’ trash, and with the money he bought strongman elixirs from hawkers on the street—a few spoonfuls were supposed to make him big enough to lift a horse. He thought it would make a difference, this new brawn, but instead the other kids steered away from him, their faces narrow and suspicious. And when he pushed his paper wagon through the soggy streets at dawn—bumping one hundred pounds of Daily Tribs through the gutters—he lobbed them so hard against the houses that they left ink stains on the wood, a row of black eyes to greet the morning.
After breakfast he went downstairs to be fitted for his costume. In the lobby he caught a glimpse of the director, holding court among the cigar smoke and potted palms, a straw hat throwing checkered shadows over his face. Indian #9 wondered if he should approach him and introduce himself, but his stomach felt tight and he decided not to. Some people seemed to think that because his tongue had stopped, his brain had, too. If they met his eyes, they’d smile bashfully, apologetically, then find an excuse to look away.
Until now his roles hadn’t required much, just a certain thuggery. After takes, he’d grown used to slapping steaks against his eye, or wincing as slivers of glass were tweezed from his knuckles. Today there were no stunts, though. Just his face—and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He worried it would be obvious, fake—the audience would be able to tell he wasn’t really speaking. If they could read the actors’ lips, maybe they could read their muscles, too. In close-up, they’d be able measure the roll of his jaw and swell of his chest. He couldn’t quite remember how far he should open his mouth. He should show his teeth, perhaps—that would look natural and be a nice contrast to his dark bronzer—but he shouldn’t gape so wide that the corners of his mouth were pulled clownishly back to his ears.
In the dressing room he stood in front of the mirror while two girls stitched him into his costume. They giggled and eyed him from beneath their pasted lashes. You’re the one in the buffalo scene? He nodded and they turned pink, right up to the roots of their molded, antiseptic-smelling curls. The hero, they purred, cinching the pants tighter around his waist. He held his breath and stared ahead, avoiding their coy smiles and peals of laughter, the way they licked and bit the thread. These girls found his silence rugged and masculine, the wound of some mysterious hardscrabble life, and the less he said, the more they blushed. Their awkward attempts at sultriness, as their fingers slid over him, made him feel (even so many years later) embarrassed by his body and what it invited. He stared at his face in the mirror and tried to concentrate on his line. Returning to Chicago after the war, he’d had trouble sleeping, so in the middle of the night he’d take a few scraps of paper into the bathroom, scribble down the lines he’d seen at the movie-house that week, and try to recreate the faces of John Gilbert or Lionel Barrymore in the mirror. It was the only time he had to himself, those nights, away from the nervous energy of his mother. She spent her days soft-shoeing through the rooms, drawing long ski-like tracks against the grain of the rug, and cooking him soft food—rice in cold milk, scrambled eggs—nothing to crack or grind, as if the noise in his head would torment him. She and his sister would confide in low tones in the back of the flat, out on the porch where the laundry flew—as though any sound at all would startle him, remind him just what he’d lost. Sometimes they would look at him—lean and wasting, smoking his cigarettes through the kitchen window—and turn their brimming eyes away.
The girls kept him late at the fitting, and when he motioned that he was getting a ride up to the set with the wrangler, one of them said, “I’ll go with you—they need one of us up there,” and began packing her sewing kit.
While she adjusted her eyelashes in the mirror, Indian #9 walked ahead, out to the bleached esplanade where the truck was waiting. The wrangler, shouldering coils of rope and costume harnesses, closed up the trailer and waved him into the cab. The air inside was pungent with horse sweat, leather, and grassy manure. The girl climbed in after him and pretended to slip; she pouted and sighed until he offered her a hand up. He’d met this kind of girl before—nice complexion but bad teeth, kittenish but sloppy—not poised enough to be in front of the camera, and too artless to know the difference between vanity and mystique. She smiled up at him, her eyes heavy and shy, one false lash already curling up at the end. He stared at the naked smear of glue on her lid.
From up the road someone whistled. “Hey, hold up!” Through the windshield he saw the blonde man jogging towards them. Those gray eyes lifted to meet his, and suddenly the air in the cab seemed unbearably thick.
“Ooh! We better make room,” the girl giggled, climbing into Indian #9’s lap. A fake French perfume lifted from her skin. He turned his head away but wasn’t sure where to look.
He felt the blonde man ease into the seat next to him, and his stomach surged. Squeezed between the two men in their dusty khakis, with the girl nestled in his lap, he could only stare out the windshield as they sputtered up the hill. He gazed at the violet iceplant along the cliffs, out to the faraway scrim of the ocean, hoping for a glimpse of the buffalo. The Spanish-tiled roof of the hotel dropped away, and he remembered the Chumash man recounting how he’d sculpted many of those clay tiles over his knees, until his skin was stained a deep red. The girl chattered on, and even though she twisted subtly against Indian #9’s groin, grabbing his thigh with every lurch and turn, he was all too aware of his knee knocking gently against the blonde man’s—just an accidental brush as the tires waddled and popped over the gravel. Every drop of blood flooded to the hollow of his kneecap. While the girl talked, the blonde man turned to him and winked. Indian #9 swallowed dryly and half-smiled back, wondering what it meant. Was it that he approved of the girl, or disapproved? Or was it something else entirely? He folded his arms across his chest so no one could see how his veins jumped. On the next turn, he pulled his knee away.
The set was just a wild glen between the hills, standing in for the wind-swept plains of the Middle West. It was the biggest set he’d ever been on—there were no walls or backdrops, just the sky. Normally, back in the city, other movies would be shooting just a few yards away. The noise had always made him feel safe. But here there were no saws and hammers to drown out the directors at their megaphones. No moody violins or traffic rushing past or the cricket-like trill of cameras. He heard only the hiss of the ocean, the wind in the trees. His bronzer was starting to melt away. He stepped up to his mark, and told himself to focus.
Under a white tent, the girl had set to work mending a cigarette burn in another Indian’s jacket. Behind the camera, the blonde man consulted with the director, who fanned himself peevishly with his straw hat. This director was young, with an expensive Princeton haircut and plump, inquisitive lips that he kneaded constantly with one knuckle. Beside him the blonde man, with uprolled sleeves and well-thumbed suspenders, lifted a viewfinder to frame the scene.
The crew waited patiently in the rising island dust, their arms burned and folded. Indian #9 stood alone in front of the camera. Behind him, the herd of buffalo was hidden in the tall grass. He saw only their brown humps: musky, sun-warm shag tinseled with hay. One of the assistants jogged over and tried to shoo them apart, but they trod stubbornly together, snorting and churning up dirt. Then, nearby, the grasses snapped and flattened, and one of them nosed out into the glen. Indian #9 drew a breath. Instinctively he tried to cry out—his tongue slicked the roof of his mouth—but all he managed was a stupefied rasp. It wasn’t the animal he recognized from the nickel, or the covers of Kit Carson dime novels. This buffalo was white, like a cloud, with drowsy, silver-flecked eyes that opened and closed in the warm December sun.
“Jesus Christ, look at that!” shouted the man in the straw hat. “Start it up!” From somewhere came the familiar chirp of the camera. “Now listen up, Number Nine! You’re shell-shocked. Delusional. You’ve just returned home to your teepee. This is the land of your people, but it’s not the way it used to be.”
Indian #9 knew every twitch of his lips, every blink of his eyes would be magnified. He tried to focus. But still, he never imagined a buffalo to be white. He couldn’t stop staring at it.