Black Galaxie 500
Day 1: A Strange Meeting – The Goodmans
Slick Kotah eased off the Galaxie’s accelerator as he approached Lame Deer on U.S. Highway 212, where he was to meet longtime Marine Corps buddy Johnny “Viho” LaCouture. Viho had forewarned him:
“Our town looks much better if you’ve had a few beers. Maybe a joint or two. But most of our people discourage that kind of livin’.”
Slick understood Viho’s meaning. He adjusted the speed of his 300-horse convertible accordingly. He had traveled top-down through the rolling hills north of the Rosebud—a long but sunny trip out of Rapid City.
The Galaxie slowed as he passed a man and woman carrying bags of groceries, and he decided spontaneously that Viho could wait a few minutes. He spun the wheel, banked the car into a slow U-turn, and idled up beside the couple. They wore red sweats and assessed him with wrinkled, sweaty faces as he eased to a stop. Slick looked up and down the street. There was little shade.
“Aho, brother. Need a ride?”
The man stopped, grinning as he appraised the clean lines of the black Galaxie. He shifted his two grocery bags. “It’s a mile or so back out of town.”
“No problem. Come on. Get in.” Slick got out, stepped around and opened the passenger door. He took their bags, placed them in the back seat and tilted the front passenger seat forward so they could get in.
The woman slid in. “Sure is a clean looking ride. My, my… Red leather.”
The man took the front. Slick eased behind the wheel, introducing himself. The man extended his hand. “Name’s Larry Goodman. And this is my wife, Floweree.”
Slick tilted his head to her in the back. The woman studied him strangely. He shrugged and pulled away from the curb.
Larry gave directions. “Stay on the highway and take the next right.”
“You got it.”
“So, Slick… I saw your Oklahoma plates. Who you visiting?”
“My friend, Viho LaCouture. You know him or his family?”
Larry and Floweree both laughed. “Of course! Everbody knows them folks. Louis, he’s half French-Canadian, half Cheyenne. Amelie, she’s all Cheyenne. Good people. If you’ve got a sick computer, you take it to Viho. You need firewood in the winter, you go to Louis. You need French-style rabbit, you go see Amelie.”
Floweree giggled. “Yep. That’s our way.”
“Our way too,” Slick agreed. “Sounds very much like Viho. I couldn’t have a better friend.”
“You tell Viho and his mother and father hello for us.”
Slick nodded, then slowed down to make the upcoming turn. A half-mile down the dirt road he turned into their driveway. Two white and silver Huskies ran from under a wood porch, barking furiously. Floweree hushed them as Slick helped with their groceries.
“Come in and have a cold drink with us,” Larry invited. “Maybe one of Floweree’s oatmeal raisin cookies.”
Slick started to decline, but he saw a slow smile and sincere sparkle in Larry’s eyes. “Well, thanks. I appreciate that. I’ve heard the Cheyenne women are good cooks. And even better bakers.”
Floweree let out a laugh.
Slick remembered his Comanche manners. He should recognize and accept simple gifts of friendship with grace and appreciation, particularly in the offering or acceptance of food. Comanche do not offer food with the expectation of a return gift; it is merely an opportunity to share that which Mother Earth has provided.
“Shoshone cook,” Larry corrected, grinning, as they stepped through the front door. He pointed Slick to a rough-sawn wood table in the kitchen. Slick looked around. The house was sparsely furnished, but neat and clean. He sat as Floweree carefully set a plate of her oatmeal-raisin cookies between them.
He cocked his head in acceptance and grinned. The cookies were still soft and fresh. “Just like Aunt Wilma’s.”
“Enjoy,” Larry said, his mouth already full. Floweree sat opposite him. “Your Aunt Wilma must be a good cook,” she offered Slick with a wink. Slick noticed the twinkle in her eyes, but still that strange look.
“You know,” he said. “It’s interesting that Floweree is Shoshone. My father—my real father—was Shoshone. Or so we believe. My mother was Comanche.”
He watched Floweree’s face grow serious, wrinkles in her brow.
Larry pushed the plate of cookies toward Slick. “And your father, he lived in Oklahoma?”
“No. Mary, my mother, came up to this country before I was born. Mary’s husband, my legal father, was very sick in Oklahoma. He told mother to come up here and live in the house of his best friend. My aunt says he was a Shoshone man. A successful business man in Billings. He said he would care for her until other relatives were ready to take her in.”
“And so you grew up here in Montana?”
“No, sir. Mother moved back before I was born. Her husband, the man they say was my legal father, got worse and died shortly after she returned. Of course, I never knew him. And some of the family members think he was too sick to father a child. We think my real father is living’ up here. That’s the real reason I’m here—to find my real father.”
Larry looked across the table at Floweree, who carefully brushed a few crumbs off the table into her hand, avoiding her husband’s eyes.
“Aho, Slick. It must be painful for you to speak of these things. Do you have a name to look for?”
“Just on the old car title. Mother never shared, and no one remembers if it was ever spoken by her husband. The only thing we have is that Galaxie 500 in your drive, and a name on the original title. We’re thinkin’ the auto dealer, if he’s still around, might know something. The man who was my real father must have given it to mother to have a safe drive home. That was back in ‘87.”
Larry and Floweree grew silent. Slick looked at his watch. “I better call Viho and tell him I’ll be a little late.”
Floweree glanced at Larry. He caught the pained look in her face, although her eyes were passive and unflinching. She shook her head and looked away, out the window and into the clear blue Montana sky. Slick followed her gaze and began to understand the pain she was trying to conceal.
He excused himself and stepped back on the porch, punched a number into his phone and waited.
“LaCouture’s camp. Send it,” the familiar voice said.
“Hey, Scalper. Slick here.”
“Hey, brother. Where are you?”
“Getting close. I just met some new friends.”
“You always do. You in town?”
“Yeah, on the edge of town. On my way shortly.”
“Okay. I’m at the Conoco.”
“Roger, that, Scalper.”
Slick ended the call, returned to the kitchen, sat and glanced up. He found himself looking into Floweree’s tearful face. She uttered something unintelligible, in a language Slick didn’t recognize.
“I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” He started to stand. “I could kick myself. Here I am, already offending you, and I’ve only been in your home five minutes.”
“No, no,” Floweree objected. She tried to talk, but could not.
Larry touched Floweree’s hands. “She was trying to say the name on your title. It would have been Grady Bleuhorse.”
Slick felt a tightness in his throat. “What? That’s… my mother?”
Floweree broke into a chest-heaving sob.
Larry hugged his wife. “It’ll be okay, dear wife.” He turned back to Slick. “You could not know, my friend, that your mother, Grady, and Floweree were very good friends. And that Floweree was Grady’s administrative assistant for many, many years. This is a small town. Billings is much larger.”
Slick felt a shock pulse through his chest. He rose from the chair. “Then, then… you knew her! My mother. Tell me everything… please!”
Larry held up his hand. “Let me explain, Slick. My wife spoke in Cheyenne, which she seldom does except when she gets emotional and her heart is troubled. Floweree has heard nothing, known nothing since Mary left. So imagine our shock when you show up, driving the very same automobile in which she left those many years ago. Incredible. And then you stopped to give us a ride? It’s simply too much for her to take.”
“Oh, my God, I am so sorry, Floweree. I can’t explain it, maybe my upbringing, but something just made me stop and give you a ride. I’m so glad I did.”
Slick looked across the table and saw Floweree dabbing at her tears with a napkin. Some of the tears escaped, found the wrinkles on her weathered face and ran down, dripping onto her chin. Floweree dabbed at them, then turned to Larry and said something in what must have been Cheyenne. Slick could pick out a few of the words but had no real idea what she was saying.
He looked to Larry, whose eyes were misty. “She is so sorry for you, and her heart is broken that her good friend, Mary, passed away some time ago. Now she must spend some time to grieve properly. She thinks you will understand that as a Comanche.”
Slick watched Floweree as Larry explained. He could feel compassion flowing from Floweree’s eyes, along with her tears.
“Yes, of course. I understand her need to grieve. And I need some time to wrap my head around this, as sudden as it is. I just hope I can be invited back to your home. I know so little of my Mother and I hope that Floweree can eventually share some things, anything, with me.”
As he finished, Floweree spoke again in Cheyenne. Larry lifted his eyebrows and looked at Floweree a full minute after she had stopped. He finally nodded, then looked back to Slick.
“My friend, I don’t know how to explain this, so I will not try. I will just repeat her words. She said, “I have felt the pain of missing my friend Mary for many years. She left so suddenly. I grieved for many days. She told me she knew her departure would hurt, and so she asked me to plant the spirit tree—the piñon, whose sweet aroma becomes incense when burned. She said she had learned this healing way from an old Comanche man. The piñon do not grow naturally here in Montana, unless they are sheltered from the north wind and snow. She ordered the seedlings and planted them on a south facing hill beyond the woods with a beautiful view of the valley to the south. I planted four seedlings. Two survived the first winter. That was thirty-two years ago.”
“Thirty-two? That’s my age. I cannot believe this. Go on, please. I need to hear everything Floweree shared.”
Larry bowed his head and continued. “Today, there are two beautiful and strong piñons. They bear special nuts which we keep and serve on very special occasions. We also have plenty of wood from the trees, which is very healing and warm on cold and snowy Montana days. Mary asked that Floweree think of her on such days, and that she leaves a piece of her heart here, with us. So today, you return to where Mary’s heart and spirit speaks to us from the trees she loved so much.”
There was not a dry eye in the room when Larry finished speaking. Slick looked up and saw Floweree standing. She held out her hand to him. Slick took her hand and she led him out the back door and through a large stand of fir and pine. Larry following, they walked out on a bare ledge overlooking a broad wooded valley with mountains to the south. At the edge stood two piñon trees, branches twisted with age, as well as the ravages of wind and winter.
Slick stared at the scene, imagining how it must have looked to Mary thirty-two years ago. “This is overwhelming, Floweree. I can’t speak. . .” His eyes were frozen on a narrow wooden bench. Snatches of dark hair waved from the backrest, as did a single eagle feather, partially wrapped in what looked like a strip of rabbit fur.
“Is that my mother’s hair?”
Floweree did not speak, but merely nodded. In front of the bench, on a narrow slope, was a small medicine wheel. It had eight spokes and a large pointed rock at the center. Beside it, a long buffalo lance waved staunchly in the wind. From it fluttered another eagle feather. In front of the bench near the medicine wheel was a fire circle, lined with smooth rocks. Nearby, a small stack of pine and cedar kindling awaited the next fire.
Floweree spoke briefly in Shoshone, then led Slick down to the wooden bench. She sat next to him, held his hand in hers, and began singing. Slick had often accompanied others in their grieving at the Medicine Falls near their home in Oklahoma. He was neither surprised nor embarrassed when Floweree started singing. But he could not hold back his own emotion as Floweree sang in her native tongue, a loud wailing and mournful song, which lasted at least fifteen minutes.
Near the end, Larry appeared from behind them with a smoking ember. He knelt at the fire circle, and in moments started a small fire from the kindling. He then added the piñon. When it was burning freely and billowing out an aromatic smoke, Floweree added two sticks of cedar.
A few minutes later, Larry arrived with two small buffalo robes, which Slick and Floweree put over their shoulders. Slick sat so that he was looking into the fire circle beside Floweree. Her hair was in braids. She pulled the right braid out, produced a slender long-bladed bone handled knife, and cut off the braid. She threw it into the fire and sang another song.
She set her right hand, palm up, on her jeans and carefully sliced across her palm with the knife, releasing a slender rivulet of blood. Slick watched calmly as she took his left hand and looked up into his eyes, her own eyes blurred by tears. Despite the tears, she appeared perfectly serene; he thought he saw something other than sorrow, but could not be sure. She turned his hand palm up and expertly sliced a thin cut. It produced a small stream of blood. She placed her bloodied hand over his. Slick had experienced similar rituals in the past with Grandfather and his friends, mostly when someone had died or during a naming ceremony. He thus remained calm and accepting of Floweree’s ministrations.
She began another song, as mournful and lingering as the others. When it ended, Larry brought two gourds of water and four small piñon nuts, each representing one of the four directions of life. They ate the nuts and drank the water without speaking. Before them the flames of the fire circle danced amidst a steady breeze, carrying its smoke toward them.
Floweree sang and mumbled, shrieked, and then passed into a gentle swaying rhythm, holding onto Slick’s hand the whole time. At the end, she broke their clasp, stood, and hugged Slick while she cried. Finally, she led him and Larry back to the house.
After washing up, Floweree served more cookies and coffee. Relieved of an emotional weight, they enjoyed the flavor and freshness of the pairing. Finally, Floweree overcame her previous reticence in the comfort of her own kitchen.
“I thank you, Slick Kotah, for accepting me in mourning the passing of your mother and my friend. We know the Great Spirit holds her gently in his arms and treasures her like no other. She was a gentle and loving woman. I wish you could have known her more. Do you have any memories you can share?”
“Just a few. And most of those are from my older brother, Jim. We call him Bear. But I guess mother and my Aunt Minnie were much alike: short, slender, long black hair and beautiful, large dark eyes. I remember someone, but only as a shadow, moving about the bedroom to put me to bed; moving around the table at mealtime to make sure I had enough to eat. I think it was my Aunt Minnie, but I made believe it was my mother. At least that’s what I’m told, because mother died shortly after I was born. As I grew up, during certain times of sadness, I remember someone speaking to me softly, sometimes firmly. Never harshly. But it wasn’t my aunt, I’m sure.”
Floweree nodded. “Oh, I do remember Mary speaking of her young boy, James. Is that Bear?”
“Yes, that’s him. Only he’s grown up and retired from the Army. Works some with the government these days. He’s as hungry as I am for memories of mother…”
Floweree listened to Slick’s growing hunger for information. It visibly saddened her when he described learning that Rhumba, his father, was unable to sire another son; that he had urged Mary to go to Montana, to carry the news of his pending death, and to urge Grady to return with her.
Floweree’s eyes turned cold as she remembered her own pledge to a tearful Mary. She wondered if now, thirty-two years later, maybe it was time to help answer this young man’s questions. She wasn’t sure.
“Slick”, she said softly. “Sometimes one needs to be cautious when dealing with the ghosts of long ago times.”
Slick looked across the table. He knew there was more story in Floweree’s serious face. “Floweree, I understand what you’re saying. I’ve spent the last few years dealing with ghosts. Devils that lurk in your dreams and turn your waking moments into a nightmare. I hope sometime you can share your ghosts and push them from your head.”
“Yes… those kind.” She shook her head in dismissal. “But sometimes you disturb things that belong in the long ago times. You never know what or who you might stir up.” She folded her arms and bowed her head and said nothing more.
Slick looked to Larry for help. Larry just shrugged. “Not a clue here, Slick. Sometimes these older ladies are quiet, to a fault. Floweree, you know something about Mary and the situation back then that maybe Slick should know?”
Floweree looked up from her folded hands, smiled and shrugged. “Not that I can think of now. There was just a lot going on in those days. All I can really say is to be careful, Slick Kotah.”
She pushed the plate of cookies across the table toward Slick. “Here, have another one. Maybe we can speak another time. Is that okay?”
“Course it is. I look forward to it. And maybe I can talk my brother into coming up for a short visit, now that we have more friends here. Thanks so much for having me in your home—it’s just like being with family. It leaves me with a peaceful, quiet feeling. Something I’ve long missed.”
“Oh, you are such a kind person, Slick… just like Mary.” She smiled.
When the two men shook hands at the door, Floweree handed Slick a small sack of cookies. “Here. Take these to snack on and share with that Viho.”
Slick accepted the cookies, shook hands again and departed. The Goodmans waved at him from the front porch like longtime friends. Slick waved back, savoring the smell of fresh cookies, the aroma of the piñon fire, and the warm feeling in his chest.