Portrait of the Coyote as a Young Man, by David Treuer

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[Memoir]

Portrait of the Coyote as a Young Man

Coming of age in Bemidji

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher

[Memoir]

Portrait of the Coyote as a Young Man

Coming of age in Bemidji
Adjust

When I was thirteen I didn’t know who I was. My family didn’t seem to know either. Sometimes I’d walk downstairs into the kitchen looking for a snack and my mom would be at the table smoking a Merit and drinking coffee while she read the paper. In 1983 everyone still read the paper, but my mom read it with vigor and suspicion, as though it was there, in the Bemidji Pioneer, that she would find evidence that the world was out to get her. Hearing my shuffling steps, she would look up and say, “Who are you?” Okay, so she wouldn’t say that out loud. But she definitely said it in her mind, because the truth was that I wasn’t in the kitchen for a snack. I was there to swipe my finger through the Crisco before skulking back to my room for yet more self-abuse. How did she know? Maybe I was more transparent than I thought: no amount of hair gel or deodorant could disguise the fact that I wasn’t a thirteen-year-old boy but a cringing, sex-obsessed demon whose nearest relatives were the monsters in my hardbound copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Fiend Folio. Or maybe, because my mom was Native, the spirits told her what I was up to.

Sometimes I had to speak to my parents. There was no way around it. So I would hover by the door to my father’s study until he noticed me with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. “Who are you?” he’d ask after I’d been standing there for a few years, growing thinner and weaker but still determined to get my allowance. My father actually did ask me that, more than once. But he meant it differently. He was asking about my “character” and my “direction in life.”

Those were the words he used while I stood there, my eyes squeezed shut, muttering to myself, “I’m a boy, I’m a real boy.” Now that I think about it—after spending years trying not to think about it—my father was probably practicing on me the kinds of questions he was only then learning to ask himself. He was a Holocaust survivor and that was largely how he thought of himself. More often than not that was how he introduced himself: “My name is Bob Treuer, and I am a Holocaust survivor.” It was one thing to address the monthly meeting of the Bemidji Rotary Club or Jaycees that way, and another to greet my D&D friends at the door with a handshake: “Bob Treuer, Holocaust survivor.” “Your dad,” said one of my friends, “is very weird.” True. Also true: he learned English by listening to the radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he and his parents had settled after they were reunited. He was brilliant, and good with languages, so he lost his German accent almost immediately. But he was never able to shake the mid-Atlantic radio voice he replaced it with. He might have looked like Billy Wilder, but he sounded like Edward R. Murrow. At a restaurant: “I . . . will have the pancakes. Thank you, and good night.”

I had no answers for my parents because I had no answers for myself. Part of the problem, nay, most of the problem, was surely with my head. It’s not only that I was troubled psychologically and emotionally, or that I had mood swings and moments of black anger. I mean, I had literal head trouble. I had been hit by a car in third grade. My skull was fractured and the top of my foot ripped off like the skin of a clementine. The foot didn’t bother me much. My head, though, was awful. I had crushing headaches. Headaches that made me dizzy. Headaches that weaponized the light. At first they struck every day. Gradually they decreased to once a week. By the time I was thirteen, the headaches came once or twice a month. I went in for CAT scans and checkups, but according to the doctors there was nothing wrong with me. My brain looked like a normal American boy brain. I think the diagnostic technology in Bemidji was outdated. Or biased against weird, furtive boys.

Bemidji—home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and water skis and flannel and male pattern baldness—was the first city on the Mississippi. Not the first city built on the Mississippi, but the first city as measured from the headwaters. Downstream there are bigger, better, more interesting cities. Later on, I suppose, the river is pretty great, as is the rest of the country. But it gets great outside of Bemidji, like many of the people born there. The town is surrounded by three Indian reservations: Red Lake, White Earth, and the one I am from, Leech Lake. There was, and probably still is, a palpable dislike for Native people in Bemidji. Disdain was practically a city ordinance. Our house was right on the edge of the reservation, and if not for the trees I could have read the boundary sign: welcome to the leech lake reservation: home to the ojibwe people and intergenerational trauma and despair.

I didn’t think a whole lot about the sign or what was behind it, or about Bemidji and what was behind that. Neither Bemidji nor the reservation could help me figure out who I was. The only thing I was sure of was that no one understood me and no one loved me, which is exactly what I told our family cat, Smokey Moses (“Smokey” because he was a gray tabby and “Moses” because we had found him in the bulrushes on the lake). I was sitting on the couch feeling a little blue and petting Smokey Moses when it occurred to me that he didn’t judge me. He didn’t assess me and find me wanting. He never, ever—not even once—asked me, “Who are you?” Overcome with love and appreciation, I spatula-ed him onto my lap and whispered, “No one understands me, no one loves me, no one but you.” He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.*

Smokey understood me. So did Gimli, my twelfth-level dwarf fighter. I’d been playing Gimli in D&D campaigns for years. Anton was our dungeon master, so Gimli knew what it meant to be in danger: Anton was likely to kill him off when he got around to it. Gimli liked fighting and he liked mead and he liked me. I was in my room and Gimli was telling me how totally cool and powerful I was when my father interrupted. He knocked on my door. Actually he knocked on the Christie Brinkley poster I’d won at the waterfront that was tacked to my door. Evidently my father had an idea.

“David . . . you are going to have a bar mitzvah.”

“What?”

“A Jewish rite of passage, a threshold you pass over, a door you pass through, as you transition from boy to man. Thank you, and good night.”

“Why?”

“So you can be a man.”

“It’s gonna happen whether we want it to or not.” I had been reading Freud. (The Interpretation of Dreams sat on my parents’ bookshelves right next to The Joy of Sex. I didn’t understand either.)

“You will write an essay about what it means to be a man.”

“What does that mean?” I looked away from my father and out of the window and noted the soughing of the pines. (I had also been reading Hemingway.)

“By writing it you will discover what that means. Thank you—”

“But—”

“And GOOD NIGHT.”

I didn’t know what to expect. My brother Anton hadn’t been told he needed to cross a threshold or pass through a doorway. I don’t know why. When I look back, Anton doesn’t really come into focus. Obviously I’m self-centered. But also he moved too fast. He seemed to sprint everywhere, a brown blur in the foreground of my childhood. He ate fast and he moved fast and he talked fast. I didn’t know any other Jewish people because there weren’t any within a hundred miles. I don’t think my father knew what to expect either. He had never been to a bar mitzvah. Not his own or anyone else’s. He hadn’t even been to temple. Ever. He wasn’t that kind of Jew. He was the kind—common in Vienna before the war—who believed in socialism and Beethoven, in the working class and social justice and chamber music.

The weeks passed. And then came the fateful day. I went down to the kitchen. There were candles. And there was food. The candles had not been bought for the occasion: I recognized them as the same red candles my parents lit during their biannual coupling. The food: pork loin roasted to a uniform gray. Those loins had remarkable consistency. They were fibrous all the way through. I think my father—who did most of the cooking—approached food the same way he approached building a house: moisture was the enemy. The family looked at me expectantly, like I was going to suddenly do a man thing—fill out a 1040 or talk to a contractor about the window seals or start singing “If I Were a Rich Man” or launch into Zorba’s dance.

“Good evening,” my father said in the voice he saved for special occasions: a Jewish Vincent Price. “I’m happy that we can come together to celebrate the moment when David becomes a man.” The family looked at me more expectantly. My younger brother and sister didn’t blink. They were five. They were waiting for the magic. I wondered whether the transformation would result in my nerve endings becoming less concentrated in the first third of my penis and more evenly distributed throughout my body. I wanted my bar mitzvah to be short and as painless as possible. To that end, I had spent weeks working on my essay. Good writing is like prosecuting a just war: it should be short, use only as much force as necessary, and limit civilian casualties. I had, in fact, spent a lot of time getting ready for my bar mitzvah by reading about the Six-Day War in the book Swift Sword: The Historical Record of Israel’s Victory, June 1967. The book, like the war, was short. And the war, like the book, had an American tank at the front. But tanks alone wouldn’t save me or the state of Israel. We also needed to win hearts and minds. In my case I had to win my father’s. He was a complex man of simple tastes and convictions. The only things he truly got excited about—other than Chopin and Brahms—were class struggle, prairie flowers, old-growth pine forests, and John Steinbeck. (It would be years before we learned he also got very excited about a number of women around town.) Anyway—I knew what I had to do, and my essay was aimed straight at him.

“What does it mean to be a man? According to Webster’s dictionary, ‘man’ is a noun; an individual human especially: ‘an adult male human.’ It can also mean ‘husband’ or ‘lover’ or also ‘a bipedal primate mammal that is anatomically related to the great apes but distinguished especially by notable development of the brain with a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning.’ But what is a man? That is the age-old question that has bedeviled humankind since the beginning of time.” The clock ticked. The twins kicked each other under the table. My mom took out another Merit. She knew she was going to be in it for a while. Anton plotted his future attack. My father was rapt because I may not have been turning into a man, exactly, but I was turning into a Jew. “Gimli is not human but he is a man. And he is a man because every day he wakes up and joins his comrades in the class struggle that is, simply put, the human struggle. Gimli would join a trade union if he could. But there are no trade unions in Dungeons & Dragons, not even in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This is because TSR, the makers of D&D, are of the ruling class—the bourgeoisie, if you will. But they won’t keep Gimli down. And it won’t keep me down. To be a man is to rise up, arm in arm with my brothers. Not these brothers you see before you. Different brothers, better ones: brothers in the great human drama that is to be a working man.” My father began to sob quietly. “I must go forth now into the gathering dark because there is a darkness that lays”—“lies,” murmured my father through his tears—“on the land, and that darkness is the future. And I must go out into it. Among the people in Reagan’s America. I could ask, What is this dark future that lays on the land? But there is no answer blowing in the wind. I don’t need an answer. I know the answer.”

My mom finished her cigarette and picked up the paper. The twins began reaching for the cupcakes. Anton continued plotting.

“Beautiful, David,” my father intoned. “And meaningful.”

And there I was. I had emerged, blinking, into the bright sun of adulthood with no idea what being an adult meant. Equipped with only a Ghostbusters T-shirt and twenty dollars. But what man needs more?

This man. This man needed more. I needed more of everything: more money, more friends, more muscles. I needed a sign that I was headed in the right direction.

Fall turned to winter, which in Minnesota is pretty much a hate crime. Spring came. Then summer. And the only direction I was headed was Bemidji, where I had gotten a job pedaling an ice-cream bike. My parents refused to drive me because they weren’t “goddamn chauffeurs.” I got paid ten cents per bar sold. The ice-cream bike wasn’t actually a bike. It was an oversize tricycle with two wheels in the front to support the cooler and one in the back. I checked out the bike at 8 am and began pedaling around Bemidji. It was exhausting. The bike weighed 120 pounds. I weighed ninety. Sometimes, at the end of my shift, I paid my boss because I had eaten more than I had sold. My boss was a Vietnam veteran and a former actor on The Young and the Restless. He had huge biceps, bleached hair, and a uniform tan. “The M16 is a good weapon,” he’d tell me and the other kids with more emotion than an adult should show discussing any topic. “I could hit a two-inch spread at four hundred yards,” he would say, looking off over Lake Bemidji into the middle distance. “I bet I could still get two inches. I bet I could. . . . ” My days began with a ten-mile ride into town. I pedaled the ice-cream bike for six. Then I returned the bike and stock to Diamond Point Park. After paying my boss like the good proletarian I was, I began the long trip home.

The roadside landscape was punctuated by swamps and cows, often together. I always felt a kinship with the cows. They were mired to their bellies in the swamp, and yet they held their heads away from the muskeg and chewed the tough marsh grass with looks of noble resignation, like those of monarchs being pulled from their thrones by a mob. There was one dairy farm along the way, owned by Gus Hall, the head of the Communist Party USA. So maybe those cows were the cows of the people. You’d see Gus handing out fliers in front of the JCPenney at the Paul Bunyan Mall. I spent most of those ten miles fantasizing. Once I conjured a white pickup—a dream coming out of the heat ripples on the road—driven by two women in halter tops. They slowed down and pulled up alongside me. The truck edged toward me. They couldn’t get enough of my muscular thighs, which rippled and flexed as I pedaled. “Looks like a lot of work,” one said. I agreed that it was indeed a lot of work. “But you look so strong,” offered the other one. I agreed that I was indeed strong. “Maybe you want a ride, though?” the first one said, suddenly shy. She wasn’t usually so bold. “Yeah,” said the driver, “we’ll take you wherever you want to go.” I stopped and took my feet out of the clips. “Any chance you’re headed to Pleasure Town?” I said with a studied nonchalance that was both cool and friendly. They laughed. “And he’s funny,” said one. I agreed that I was indeed funny. They pulled over to the shoulder and the gleaming truck stopped and rocked gently on its springs. I lifted my bike into the bed with one smooth swooping gesture of my bulging, sweat-sheened arm. The woman in the passenger seat slid over to make room. It was a Toyota, so not a full-size pickup. I needed to put my arm around her. There was no place else to put it. The driver expertly shifted into first gear and off we went into the distance, beyond which, invisible but waiting for all of us, was Pleasure Town. But I was interrupted before we got there. The truck and the women disappeared. There was a package in the ditch. I could hear it calling out: Find me, find me, find me.

I got off my bike and scurried through the grass. The package was rectangular and heavy, wrapped tightly in a black plastic garbage bag and silver duct tape. I took out my pocketknife and slit it open. And as though anxious to meet me, out spilled at least twenty Hustler, Chic, Juggs, and Oui magazines. I was on my knees. I looked down at the treasure in my hands, then up at the sky. “Thank you,” I whispered. The Great Spirit or Yahweh or whatever, distant and inscrutable till now, smiled at me. I knew who I was, finally, and at long last. I was someone God loved. I was not merely among the chosen ones. I had been chosen. Proof was in my hands. Then my communion was interrupted. A pickup slowed to a stop and rocked on its springs. The window rolled down. I held my breath. “You okay?” It was our neighbor Chuck, a Pall Mall stuck to his lower lip. “Yep,” I said, my voice shrill. “Backpack exploded.” Pause. “Exploded, huh?” It’s possible this had a different meaning for Chuck, a World War II veteran. After the war he had been one of the soldiers in those forward trenches they dug in the Southwest so they could see what kind of nuclear damage your average red-blooded American could take. “Yeah, zipper.” God’s grace and my erection were making it hard to speak. “Want a lift? You can put your bike in the back.”

“Not necessary.”

“You look sweaty.”

“Hot. Out.”

“You sure?”

“Sure. Positive.”

“Crazy weather.”

“Crazy.”

“Just got my truck out of the shop.”

“Shop.”

“Okay then.”

“Then.”

Chuck drove off. I stuffed my treasure into my backpack and pedaled as fast as I could back to the house.

Most of you don’t know what it’s like to be thirteen and to bask in the glow of God’s favor. Let me tell you: it’s good. It is very good. What was once a secretive, cave-dwelling kind of life expanded into a sherbet-hued paradise on earth. Those women and the manhood they conferred kept me company: in the morning before work, during bathroom breaks across the lively burg of Bemidji—Giovanni’s, Dairy Queen,the Whispering Pines Motel, the Orbit Inn lobby bathroom, Food 4 Less, Lueken’s Village Foods, the Markham Hotel, City Hall, the public library—when I got home from work, before dinner, after dinner, and, as a top off, right before I closed my eyes. And it did feel like they made me more of a man, whatever that was. Cooler. Luckier. More Eddie Van Halen and less Eddie Munster. Those summer days and nights were blessed, plentiful, and right. I felt bigger and better and older than everyone else now that I had stopped worrying so much. My head was in the clouds, though I smelled like a pancake from the Crisco. But I couldn’t just leave my magazines laying (lying) around. What would my parents think? I didn’t share the stash with Anton that much. God chose me, not him. If the Great Spirit had wanted him to jack off five times a day he would have shone his light on him. I had a desk, a big heavy oak number on a pedestal. There was an empty space under the file drawer, and I kept my scriptures there. A few weeks later I went on a bike trip with my best friend and his parents. It was a hard separation. But “the ladies” (as I thought of them) wanted me to live a full life. They were clear: “Go have adventures! Be with your friends! See the world! Get exercise!” And in a softer voice, in quieter moments: “We’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

The trip lasted a week, and the only places we went were Debs, Blackduck, Deer River, Ball Club, and Grand Rapids. There was a message waiting at my friend’s house when we got back: “Don’t come home. Call your parents at the Holiday Inn.” Obviously they had found my stash, and they were disappointed. More than that, they were disgusted. And they had gotten me a room at the Holiday Inn because they were kicking me out. I was in agony, stewing in shame and confusion. Eventually my father’s car rolled into the yard. He hugged me close and didn’t wait until we were in the car to give me the bad news: “David, bad news. The house burned down while you were gone.”

“You’re not kicking me out?”

“What?”

“It burned down? Like, all the way?”

“Do you want to go to the hotel or do you want to see it?”

“See it.”

“It’ll be a bit of a shock.”

“How did it start?”

We were passing the communist’s farm.

“It’s not your fault.”

“How could it be my fault?”

“I just wanted you to know that.”

“When did it happen?”

“Tuesday.”

I had left on Monday. I was in the clear. We drove up, and the house came into view. It was as if someone had taken the top off. The fire had started in the garage and blown through the front of the house and then climbed the stairs and burned away the roof and top floor. I didn’t say anything.

“It’s okay if you want to cry.” That was, I think, his way of saying that he wanted to cry. “You can go in. The floor is solid. If there’s anything you want to save.”

I knew, somehow, what losing the house meant for my parents. They didn’t take vacations. They didn’t do things like ski or snowmobile. We never had a boat or a four-wheeler or an RV. Everything they made they put into the house: my mom because she grew up in squalor, my father because he was a refugee. Now it was a ruin.

I walked up the half-flight of stairs to the kitchen and then up the next half-flight to the hallway that led to my room. I felt as if I was walking through a garden of ashes. The floor was ash. The walls, with their baseboards like banker’s shoes, tapered off into charred timbers and then gave way to the sky. My father walked behind me. “It burned on Tuesday. The fire department came. And then it rained Tuesday night. If the fire and smoke didn’t get it, the rain did.” We arrived at my room. My bed was there, and my dresser and the bookshelves. But they’d all been knocked over. “They check for sparks and embers. That’s why it’s like this,” my dad offered. My desk had been flipped over. The ladies were scattered around, the pages flipped open and fanned all over the floor. They were ruined. The pages swollen. Images bled through so that what was already physically unlikely was now physically impossible. One magazine was open to a lady taking a bubble bath. It was as though the bath had overflowed and drowned the others. A quart of Jergens lotion sat in the corner of the room like a perverted garden gnome.

“You okay?” asked my father.

“Who was here?”

“Everyone. The fire department. All the neighbors. Friends. We rescued as much as we could.”

“Everyone?”

“Your stuff is at ServiceMaster. They can work on the smoke damage.”

Everyone had seen my ladies. Worse than that: everyone had seen me. And there was no way I could make them unsee me. No way at all. He giveth and he taketh away. Most of you don’t know what it’s like to be thirteen and to know God hates you. Let me tell you: it’s bad. Very very bad.

“Anything else worth saving?”

“Is Smokey Moses okay?”

“Safe.”

“Everyone else? The twins? Anton? Mom?”

“Safe. All safe.”

“I think the rest of the stuff is probably ruined.”

“Probably.”

We walked down the stairs. My father in front. His shoulders were slumped and he looked left then right then left again, scanning for anything that could be saved, anything he’d overlooked. The sun had come out.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Yup.” He didn’t look back at me.

“We’re going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay.”

“You think?”

“Sure. Why not?”

We left. Soon I’d be swimming with the twins and Anton at the Holiday Inn. It wasn’t Pleasure Town. It was the Holidome. The pool was surrounded by plastic plants and Astroturf, and the hotel had shuffleboard and foosball and a Ping-Pong table and video games. The ceiling was dome-shaped and made of glass, through which I could see the summer sky. Night was coming on slowly. The twins were splashing each other and screaming. Anton was in the hot tub and looked very uncomfortable, but he smiled when he saw me walking up, pale and exposed in my swimsuit. Mom got in the pool and swam with us. Dad read the paper and then put it down to join Anton in the hot tub. My parents had lost everything. I guess I had, too. Our laughter and screams bounced off the dome and came back to us, louder and clearer than you’d think.