Damaged Goods, a short story

Damaged Goods

Agnes Looking Horse stopped believing in God at age fifteen when she discovered God came to America on the same ships that brought the white man.  Now, in the autumn of her life, there didn’t seem much point in looking further.  No, not much point.   She dressed for work thinking about it all—about life, about change, about time.

Damn time.

Time to give it up, is more like it, she thought.  Quit expecting gold from base metal.  She had done her time.  After the mission schools, after decades of not letting the damned reservation gobble her life, after grabbing a B.S. and an M.A. like a thief trying to get out of town before getting caught, after teaching English on the rez for twenty years, what was the point?  In the end she had landed a broken man who gave her two beautiful daughters—and then disappeared.

Now, the young people were going back to the old ways.  Agnes looked in the mirror and saw her own long hair, now gray, braided and twisted atop her head.  Lakota youth were now wearing long braids, donning Sundance skirts, fashioning willow limbs into round sweat lodges—it seemed a paradox to her.  Young people, old ways.

She lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment just across the interstate and had only to walk under one overpass and cross the parking lot to reach the main mall entrance where neon danced in green and peach.  Even her car had disappeared into why bother.   A year ago she’d gotten the hell out and taken a job cleaning Herberger’s Department Store at the Rushmore Mall, content now to follow pale gray aisles and count small gray cans tucked beneath the counters.  How many trashcans in all, she wondered?  Missy Sportswear, Ladies’ Wear, Housewares, Children’s,  Shoes . . . .

That was how life was going for Agnes Looking Horse.  Going away.  Things kept going away but it didn’t seem to matter.  In fact she liked the new slow rhythm, a dull thrumming rhythm like a drum that never stops and never speeds up.  She walked to work thinking about her now married, now mothering daughters who disapproved of her diminishing lifestyle, but just the other day she’d shushed them and said, “Everything I have, I want.  Everything I need, I get.”

She liked the way that phrase summarized her life and she repeated it now, heels clicking against pavement, the early morning sun touching the top of her head.  It was like a chant, a mantra.  She had no idea that the syllables themselves could contain power, could ease out of her mouth an into the world she had closed around her.

So when the mysterious thing happened later that day, Agnes scarcely noticed, just another slow beat beneath her feet, and all she did was grin at the coincidence.  Her cutting board had split in two pieces the day before and she’d thought, “I need a new cutting board.”

And then today, in Housewares, in the gray trashcan, she found a brand new cutting board with one tiny split on the end.

Damaged goods were often tossed into the trash and she hated to see anything go to waste, so with a shrug she tucked the cutting board into the wheeled bin beneath the larger bag.  When she got home late that afternoon, she rubbed safflower oil into the grainy wood, and watched the new cutting board drink the oil.  It felt good to have rescued the poor thing and she set the gleaming cutting board where the old one had been only yesterday.

The following week she rose from bed and, almost overnight, fall had turned on them.  A chill, bitter wind raised the hair on her arms as she walked to work and she thought, “I need a new sweatshirt.”   It was only the quickest little thought, so small she hardly recalled having it, but later that day, in Missy Sportswear, she turned over a small gray can and out tumbled a new black sweatshirt scattered with pretty silvery snowflakes.  Somebody had spilled a Strawberry Julius on one sleeve and a clerk had tossed it.  Agnes chuckled to herself and slid the gift behind the big bag and took it home when her shift ended.  It washed up beautifully.

Over the next several weeks, like tick and tock, every time she needed something, the item mysteriously showed up on her shift.  Slightly damaged goods came to her almost on cue; a small Chicago Cutlery paring knife, a new juice jug, a bathroom towel, a soap holder.

When she wondered what to get her 6-year-old grandson, Jackson, for his birthday, a brand new LA Gear backpack showed up with bright orange, yellow, and black colors and one badly frayed strap.  She would never spend $28.50 on a kid’s backpack, but she sure could thread a needle and stitch up a bit of loose fabric.  The straps had little air pumps and the backpack made Jackson the envy of his first grade class.

Damaged goods, she thought, like me.

Life had not always been kind.  Only determination (and anger) had stiffened her spine long enough to survive the hard years.  Sometimes, she felt steeped in anger, as if she’d been left to ferment, but now, with the small trashcan gifts, she felt the rigid, holding anger flow out and leave her.  She laughed and accepted the little gifts as her due.  It was downright odd how a single fleeting thought brought the gifts.

One day she thought perhaps she should wish for money in the trash, but she already knew wishing wouldn’t work.  It was about need.  Agnes couldn’t muster up real want or need around money.

Still, she was curious.  How were these things coming to her, linked so directly with her thoughts?   Some days she felt if she turned her head just so, she might suddenly catch the trashcan gift-giver in the act.  Some days she went home with her arms full of the gifts.

The mystery added a new beat to the dull thrumming of life.  She began to look forward to going to work.  She began to look forward to going home again.  In fact, she began to look again.  The newly planted seed of interest sprouted and grew.  She began walking out into the chilly evenings to stroll beneath a sky burnt umber and blue, or she rose early to see the softer pink fluff of sky that reminded her baby blankets.  The urge to be sandwiched between earth and sky grew and soon she was walking out after dark to keep company with the stars and the moon.

Curiously, her body felt the rhythms of heaven and earth even when her mind could assign no meaning to it.  Even more strangely, it was the same beat, the same rhythm she remembered as a girl dancing beneath a heady sky in a world newly washed by rain and hope.  She eyed the moon suspiciously, thinking perhaps it was Iktomi, the Trickster her grandmother had told her about.  Iktomi, in cahoots with the moon, friends with the trashcan god, was walking with her.

Earth and sky gathered her in close embrace, encasing her in a web of safety.  On these walks, she began singing old songs remembered from a long-ago childhood, songs of prayer and wopila, of thanksgiving.  An old woman looks to the old ways, she thought to herself in these moments.  It made her laugh again.

One night, after many weeks of finding gifts in the trashcans, of wanting a small thing only to have it appear as if by magic, she pierced the moonlit sky with her question.  “What is happening?  I don’t understand.”  Suddenly, she desperately wanted to understand.

The next day she followed the beige tile around the department store, emptying her trashcans, when she spied a small plastic envelope perched precariously on the edge of one can.  Inside the envelope was a small black figure, an ornament for a Christmas tree or something.  She absentmindedly slipped the envelope into the pocket of her smock, and finished her shift.

After work, Agnes trudged under the overpass and into her warm apartment.  It was quiet there, almost too quiet, as if the refrigerator had suddenly stopped and her ears strained to hear the missing noise.  In the tiny bedroom she unbuttoned her smock and felt the small bulky thing in the pocket.  She’d forgotten about the plastic envelope.  Pulling it out of the pocket, she sat down on the edge of the bed and tugged until the red snap popped open and out slid a tiny, black, winged horse.  The ornament, so small it fit neatly in the palm of her hand, had golden edges on its wings and body.

Agnes stared at the black horse.  She saw that the two back legs of the beautiful winged creature were broken.  The tiny pieces, each no more than half an inch long, were missing.  Her hand trembled.  Suddenly, the little horse’s body trembled too.  Her breath caught in her throat.  The tiny horse snorted, and a warm burst of air hit her thumb.  The room grew dim and silent until she heard only her own heart beating.

For no visible, logical reason, tears gathered in her eyes, a heavy thickness nearly closed her throat.  I will not cry, she thought.  I will not.

She took a long breath, but the breath shattered and she sobbed.  She turned the plastic envelope outside down and shook it until the two broken pieces of the horse’s legs slid out onto the bed. With a fragile urgency now, born of a thousand years of grief and pain, she dug in her nightstand, found a tube of instant glue and with trembling hands, dropped a pearl of glue on the open wound of one tiny leg.  She held the pieces tight until the adhesive set.  Tears trailed over her cheeks, but her hands were suddenly steady as a tree trunk.  As soon as that leg was set, she repaired the other.

He’s whole again, she thought, relieved.  Her hands trembled as if a terrible crisis had passed.  She looked at the tiny horse, his body now calm and still in her hand.  Love for the strange little beast warmed her hands, her belly, her frozen heart.

The Looking Horse, she thought.  This is my looking horse.

Agnes realized that all her life she had sought his tiny form.  A Looking Horse should be able to see very, very far, across great distances, she thought bravely.  A Looking Horse . . . should fly.

And then she was crying again, and then laughing, and squeezing the small horse between her hands as if praying.  She thought of her grandmother standing at the stove cooking, and her cousins playing in dusty yards, and she thought of the Lakota People, her people, and all the ancient stories she had heard growing up; stories of Thunder Beings and Great Spirits and eagles with far-seeing eyes and smoke curling up from tribal fires.  Way back in her mind she heard drums beating beneath songs threading one generation to the next as if tied by fine silver wire.  And she listened.

All the old memories of death and loss fell like rain, hit the sizzling earth, and then evaporated.   She would grieve no more.  No more.   Everything I have, I want.  Everything I need, I get she thought again.

Agnes took the winged horse and carried him into the kitchen and, with the fine golden thread looped across his back, hung him in the windowsill.  She hung the Looking Horse above her favorite blue Libby coffee mug so he could see out across the land and know his place forever and forever . . . and forever.

© 2006, Jamie Lee

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