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The Vanishing American


[clock] 28-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2009

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.

“You call out to the buffalo! You try to touch it! But it’s only a mirage.”

The buffalo drew closer, head bobbing, and snuffled Indian #9’s outstretched hand. A hot gust of air shot into his palm—he couldn’t believe it. A white buffalo! And its gentleness, the way its frothy nose rooted tenderly around his fingers. He moved his hand up between the horns and sunk it into the thick, kinked mange, which was so bright in the sun he almost had to close his eyes. The buffalo made a noise like a happy sigh, and bowed its head to pull at the dandelions. Indian #9 felt a sharp ache in his heart, whether because it was full or empty he didn’t know.

“It’s the first time you’ve seen the homeland in such a state! Now remember, the buffalo is just a figment of your imagination. Make us feel for the old redskin, buddy.”

He knew it was silly, but those nights in the tent together, listening to Olivieu’s stories, he started to have ideas about where they would go together after the war. Not back to Cincinnati or Chicago. Olivieu had traveled; he spoke often of California, where he lived briefly as a boy. There was a cactus plant, he said, that grew not upright in the air, but sideways along the ground like a snake. I’m serious! The Indians called it the Creeping Devil.

Baloney.

“Now maybe put your hand over your heart! Lean forward a little! That’s it.”

Lately, Indian #9 had been having this dream. Not a dream, exactly, but more like an image—a snatch of film that played over and over in his mind whenever he found himself idle or alone. It was so startlingly clear that at times he was sure it must have happened in life. He was outside in a garden, smoking a pipe in a clean white linen shirt, and for some reason there was a typewriter on a table in front of him, its blank page stirring in the breeze. Beyond him, cantilevered on the hillside, stood Olivieu. He was in his old army pants and gloves, tending to the succulents, framed by their ribs and thorns, blossoms and paws. Birds singing, oranges ripe in the air, the golden sheen of sweat on his arms. As Indian #9 sat there with his pipe, he watched the simple movements of his friend—his concentration, the phantom smiles that crossed his face, the gentle dent in his shoulder that had been carved by a vaudeville kettle drum. Olivieu paused and looked up to the sky—at what? Indian #9 couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t matter. The shame and beauty of that little fantasy—it kept him going and it weighed him down. And when he finally saw the Creeping Devil for himself, undulating down the canyons of Hollywood, the first vision he had was of the men in their uniforms, lying twisted on the ground together, a frozen wave of green.

“That’s it, buddy! God-damn. Now let’s see you call out!”

Indian #9 smiled sadly. The word he began to mouth—it wasn’t even his line. It was something else entirely. Olivieu. And the relief of it made him nearly weep—a breath burned into silver, stored in the dark, hidden in a canister and carried away on the rails, where one day it would be exhaled across a thousand walls of light. It was a strange feeling—safe, but alone—knowing this was a word that could never be read.

And then it was over. They moved on to the next scene. Indian #9 walked in a daze to the tent. He poured himself some water and waited to react. What exactly had happened? His mind raced, struggling to recreate each pantomime, how he’d moved his eyebrows, his mouth, the muscles in his jaw. He couldn’t be sure of anything. But then people started coming up to congratulate him. Even the director clapped him on the back: Good work, pal! They complimented him on his face, his size, his solemn, wondrous expression. He sat down on one of the benches, lightheaded, while the seamstress cooed over him and sniffled unconvincingly into her handkerchief.

As he finished his water and peeled off his jacket, he saw the blonde man approaching. Nervously he grabbed for the girl, who squealed and wriggled away. His sister had once sent him clippings of an actor who’d died young—there were accounts of women weeping, fainting, poisoning themselves with arsenic, even trying to climb into the casket. It made him laugh at first, queasily, trying to imagine a theater full of swooning females. See, see? he told himself as he caught the seamstress by the wrist and pulled her into his lap. I can get used to this.

That night they went down to the cantina on the waterfront. There was a full moon, a five-piece band, and tequila brought over from Ensenada. He danced with the girl and drank, and for the first time since he moved from Chicago, he felt like he was part of the picture people—not some flat tire returning home at eight o’clock to down a cold pot of coffee and a cheese sandwich. He’d only been to one party before, in a producer’s palatial backyard off Franklin, but the smell of chlorine in the swimming pool had sent him into heaves—he’d spent the evening retching uncontrollably in the bathroom, wiping his chin with a prim potpourri-scented handtowel. In the end he’d stumbled home, guided by streetlights, and lain shivering in bed till dawn, staring at the lights of the tattoo parlor and a band of sailors smoking on the sidewalk below.

In the moonlight the girl kissed him sloppily, and he assented. They stumbled back to the hotel together, into the dark dressing room, where they wrestled each other’s clothes off between the headdresses and bandoliers. But once their bodies started knocking clumsily together, his bravado left him. The slap and peel of skin seemed base and common, and her moans so lonely and absurd. He shut his eyes and tried to concentrate. She squirmed and panted, her fingers clamping around the rung of a costume rack, but he was distracted by the squeak of the casters, the slosh of tequila in his stomach, her weird, hiccup-like yelps. He ground his teeth together and held his breath and finished with a mute, unsatisfying shudder. Afterwards she tried to get him to go back up to her room, saying she had a nice bottle of gin, but he shook his head, miming exhaustion. She smiled and shrugged it off, like any big-city girl who longed for the appearance of sophistication, but he could see the disappointment in her eyes, the resolve clashing with the hurt, and he felt ashamed of what he had done.

He stole upstairs and took a long, hot bath, thinking he’d fall right into bed, but his heart was pounding and he couldn’t lie still. He fished around the desk for some stationery and started writing a letter about the buffalo. But it seemed silly and boyish, like a grammar school report; the sentiment came out all wrong. He crumpled up the page and went out to the terrace to watch the sun rise over the island. Everything was good, he told himself—a posh hotel, a pretty girl, and a real step up as an actor.

Still, he couldn’t help but think of the buffalo, how they had been left there in the glen overnight, how no one would be going back for them. He had a strange, childish fear that they would be cold, or frightened. But later that day, when the noon ferry, heavy with day-players, pulled away from the harbor, he saw them there on the cliff between the flowers and fog, as if they had gathered to watch him go.

When the movie opened on Vine Street, he was first in line for the matinee. His heart swam up in his chest when he saw the title on the marquee: The Vanishing American.

In the balcony he sat alone. He barely paid attention to the pageantry, just cracked open peanuts with his teeth and spat the shells on the floor, until his mouth was raw and puckered with salt. He watched the horseback rides, the schoolhouse scenes, the drawn-out duel—all the while leaning forward with his elbows pinned to his knees, as if he could push his way into the next scene. When the music swelled and the final card dissolved, he felt the peanut oil churn in the back of his throat, the crumbs nagging under his tongue. He sat there, tremulous, disbelieving. So he sat through the next show, and the next, but his scene still wasn’t there.

He left the theater. The sun was so bright his eyes began to throb. Half-blind, he got on the streetcar and rode it down to Paramount, where he passed a note to the secretary, an owlish woman who cracked her puffy knuckles and eyed him suspiciously before lifting the phone and whispering something into the mouthpiece.

Indian #9 waited, pacing the floor, ignoring the crowd of hopeful day-players who craned their heads curiously over their trade papers. There was a strange pressure in his chest—he put his hand there to make sure his heart was still pumping. The secretary got up and shuffled through a door. When she emerged again, she was followed by the blonde man. When he saw Indian #9, his eyes flickered almost imperceptibly. The secretary looked annoyed, but the blonde man led Indian #9 back through the lot, down cloistered walkways shaded with saw-tooth fronds and papery sprays of bougainvillea, into what looked like an editing room—a cramped, dark vault with spotted tiles and a smell that was inky and metallic, like typewriter ribbons. The man pulled a film can from the shelf. All at once he seemed shy, hushed, and wouldn’t meet Indian #9’s eyes. He pried off the lid and touched the whorl of celluloid, which was raised and fine as a fingerprint. Clearing his throat, he threaded it into the machine and said, “These are the rushes. From the scene in the glen.”

On the small hooded screen, a scene flickered to life. Indian #9 saw himself among the grasses, his oiled body glowing in the sun, the buckskin textured and almost tangible, a husky pucker in the smooth and even scenery. He looked good. He looked like he was really speaking. But the buffalo was so white it hadn’t even registered. The only thing discernible were its eyes, two damp blots, and the fairy-wing silhouette of its shag.

Something caught in Indian #9’s throat. He motioned for the man to play it again. He squinted at the toy vision of himself, dwarfed and sputtering on the screen, his hand petting a milky bruise, calling out to something that wasn’t there.

“What is it you’re saying?” the blonde man asked, leaning in, his breath smelling like cocoa and tobacco. “It looks like you said . . . I love you.” He reached out and gently touched Indian #9’s hand. Indian #9 stared at the fingers, soft and white against his scarred knuckles, and, trembling, drew his hand away.

The blonde man dropped his eyes and turned back to the screen. Slowly, dazedly, he started winding the film back. Indian #9 saw himself move backwards across the screen. If he could only keep rewinding. Back, back, back, his whole life in reverse. Back to Olivieu, dropping his hands from his throat and spitting out the gas like an elegant, phosphorous band of smoke. Back to the men in green, soaring up from the mud—a barbed thicket of limbs unraveling, snatching rifles from mid-air, and landing easily on their feet. Back until he was just a little boy again, the ponies trotting backwards around the corner, the flash of the camera disappearing into the photographer’s pan, maple cakes bubbling down into lumps of sugar and egg, his shoes restored to a box of corn flakes with a few swipes of his mother’s scissors, the ink stains sucked from a neighborhood stoop by a Tribune vaulting its way to his outstretched hand—all the way back to the newsprint running tacky and flat up the belts at the mill, the plates lifting the letters from the pages and leaving them white and unblemished, the story yet unwritten.

He looked at the man’s downturned head, at the tender divot pulsing behind his reddened ear. Now he knew the silence wasn’t a sentence, but a gift. If he could speak again, who knows the things he might say?

Outside the California sun was bright, the sidewalk like glass. It was the height of the afternoon, dusty and busy and ordinary, the street full of people seeking a cool place to lunch. His sadness, as they passed, was something he knew he could never describe. When he returned from the war he had heard it again, in a whisper—but this time the children were looking at him, tall and gaunt, holding his box of relics like a saint (those personal effects and papers, entombed with Olivieu’s broken pocketwatch). Look. They pointed as he walked down the street, as he mounted the steps of his mother’s house. Look, they’d said. Il fantasma.

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