Talking Sticks

Back in the day when we were called hippies, not homeless, I lived with an Apache named Bill Dixon for a summer. We slept nights outside on the ground next to a small river deep enough to swim in. Our days were spent in a couple different bars and restaurants in and around Winslow, Arizona. 

Bill made money by drawing portraits of people in his large sketchbook. In the time it took a family or couple to order and eat a meal Bill would sketch a portrait of one or more of them.  After they had left the restaurant and were walking back to their car Bill gave them the portrait as a gift. I would watch this commerce as pantomime from inside the restaurant. Bill Dixon’s drawings always translated into the only tangible token we have. From watching the transaction I was usually able to predict the value of the investment. Longer exchanges with smiles and handshakes meant Bill and I would be able to move over to the bar a bit earlier that particular day. 

At the bar Bill continued drawing but I became the breadwinner at the backroom pool table. The bar allowed small stakes gambling. For the restaurant and bar owners, Bill Dixon’s sketches and my three-cushion bank shots became almost like added entertainment. Bill and I would catch a ride home to the riverbank at night usually only with enough money for breakfast the next morning.

One night by the river Bill told me his Apache name, the name that was used at his home by his family, his people. He asserted that his name was untranslatable into English. The power of the name was inextricably intertwined within the language. Leaving its native language the name would lose its power and disappear.

Bill also told me the story of his English surname. At the time when his grandfather was a young boy the government had forced all the Apache children into schools whose goal was to assimilate the tribe into the larger culture outside the reservations. Children were instructed to choose both first and last English names. Bill’s grandfather found his surname right there among the items on his school desk. Bill finished this story by holding his portrait sketching tool up in the light of our campfire. A yellow DIXON pencil.

Shortly after this time with Bill Dixon I enrolled in school. I had learned how to shoot pool as a high school dropout and delinquent but I had gotten my GED in the Army and eventually would go through graduate school on the GI bill. During that time in school I became a writer. I wrote longhand on yellow legal pads in pencil, a Dixon pencil. I was accepted into graduate writing programs on the basis of a short story I wrote. “A Cue Stick” is about a teenager in search of his masculinity and identity in a largely predestined world of jail and prison.

Bill never told me why he didn’t live with his family on the reservation. What I do know is that home can be both a refuge and a prison.

The child alone in a cage will try to make it his home. He searches for his mother tongue. She is not there. Was she ever there? But he holds the talking stick right at the border of our humanity and cries out his name in the language of angels.