BY KATHARINE O’FLYNN
Katharine O’Flynn lives in Montreal. Copyright is held by the author.
I WENT TO TUCSON on a graduate exchange scholarship in library science from my university, Aberystwth, in Wales. I chose the University of Arizona in Tuscon for the exchange year because I’ve always loved Westerns. The Tony Hillerman novels, the McMurchys and the McCormacs, the old Zane Greys, the cowboy and Indian films from the 40s and 50s on the telly, and the new ones too, I just eat them up. I wanted to see the real thing: real cowboys, real Indians, real desert with real cactuses and red rock bluffs and rattlesnakes.
Well, I saw the desert and the cactuses and the red rock bluffs and rattlesnakes and the sunsets — bobol bach! the sunsets! Even more beautiful than the pictures. But I couldn’t help but be disappointed in the cowboys and Indians.
The modern day cowboys I saw around town and campus wore shorts instead of jeans, and trainers instead of boots. Never the jingle of a silver spur did I hear.
I was in a house share with some American girls and they set me up, as they called it, with dates: nice enough fellows, but a far cry from the rugged John Wayne or Randolph Scott or Clint Eastwood. Most of them had never been on horseback, they told me.
In search of Indians, I rode the bus to the San Xavier del Bec Mission. I visited the chapel and climbed the hill and ate fry bread. I loved the way people there all seemed to know each other, on the bus and in the chapel and at the open air restaurant. They seemed to treat each other like family, just like the people back home in Llanaelhaearn do. But I was an outsider, a tourist; it was not a place for me.
Then one day I was walking around in Tucson exploring the area south of the station. I like to walk around districts, get the feel of them. I loved Fourth Street with its kinky shops and cafés, and the Iron Horse District with its cute little bungalows and grapefruit trees on the bare lawns, and the historical district — historical! — where the houses aren’t even 100 years old. This area on the other side of the train tracks was more run-down. There were ill-kept rooming houses and several vacant lots where desert hobos had set up camps of plastic sheeting and crates and shopping carts. In a street full of pawn shops and hairdressers and bars and cafés, I spotted a place with a sign that said Native Arts. On the sign there was a picture of a Native American in a feathered head dress. And I walked in and fell in love. Wham! Just like that.
He was standing behind the counter arranging silver rings. I loved the silent dignity of his welcoming nod, the gentleness of his hands as he laid each ring in its little black velvet nest. And I was absolutely enchanted by his good looks. He had high cheek bones and straight, black, shoulder-length hair with a red silk scarf banded across his forehead. He looked like Geronimo. I moved in closer. He was wearing moccasins, real moccasins.
His name tag said Jim.
I wondered if he was Apache. Or Navajo or Tohono O’odham, like the people out at San Xavier del Bec.
Well, it didn’t matter.
But yes, it did. I always hate it when people assume I’m English. I’m not. We Welsh are proud of our own national identity, our language and traditions. Similarly, a Navajo might very well not like being thought an Apache, and vice versa. I’d ask him when we got to talking.
“I’d like a ring,” I said to start.
He presented the tray.
I tried on rings and I talked. We Welsh are great talkers. We ask questions of strangers: Where are you from? Who are you visiting here? We make it easy to come round to, “What are you doing tonight?”
Jim asked me no questions, so I had to ask him. “Can you ride horseback?” I asked. “Who made these rings? Which one do you like best? Do you live out in San Xavier del Bec? Are you a Tohono O’odham — I hoped I pronounced that right — or maybe an Apache?”
“Navajo,” he said. That’s the way he answered all my questions. With one word.
Perhaps sales clerks here are not supposed to chat with customers.
I flashed my seductive Celtic smile to no effect. I waved good-bye from the door, alone.
My new silver ring gleamed in the sun.
I should have done the English slut smile; the Celtic look doesn’t always translate.
That evening I showed my house mates the ring, and told them about Jim, and asked their advice on how best to proceed. “A lot of Native Americans,” Bethany said, “they like to keep to themselves; they might not trust a white woman who comes in and starts asking a lot of questions.”
“Plus, especially if he’s Navajo,” Chelsea said, “they mostly don’t talk that much.”
Actually I knew that from reading Hillerman. I was sorry. I hoped I hadn’t seemed offensive to him. I would try to make amends.
So the next day I went back to the shop, and I said, “I’d like one of those straw baskets,” and I hardly said anything else, except “thank you.”
Neither did he.
I left the shop alone, again.
I couldn’t keep going back to the shop buying things. I’d already overspent on the month’s budget. But I wasn’t giving up, because I felt an affinity between Jim and me. We Celts are highly attuned to that sort of thing. It’s kind of like second sight. I was pretty sure I could tell from the way he looked at me that Jim was aware of the attraction as well. So the next day I tried just hanging around in the vicinity of the shop with a feeling that we were bound to meet ‘by accident.’
Around noon I was taking a break in a little café down the street, when Jim came in with another fellow from the shop, an older man, probably the boss. He and Jim sat at the counter and ordered coffee. Their backs were to me. I was in the booth directly behind them with my back to the door so they hadn’t seen me as they came in. It was a perfect set-up for eavesdropping. I scrunched down in my seat and listened.
“So,” the older man said, “no girlfriend today. You sad?”
“Uh,” said Jim. He really wasn’t a great talker.
“Geez, the questions that chick asked.” The boss shook his head and poured sugar into his black coffee. “Can you ride a horse? Do you like silver? Do turquoises look just like that when you find them or do you have to chip them out of the rock? Are you a Toe- hone-Ooh! ham?” He laughed. “She talks so much I thought to bring her a glass of water, like on the talk shows.”
“Nice voice,” Jim said. “Deep, like a cactus wren.”
The boss went on. “Then yesterday she comes in, she doesn’t say hardly a word.”
“Looks good though,” Jim said.
My heart sang. Now I knew all I needed to know.
“I’d like to look at bracelets,” I said when I returned to the shop.
Jim brought a tray of bracelets and I let my hands drift among the silver hoops. “My people work with gold,” I said, “My people, the Welsh. We like patterns that weave in different elements, different textures. Gold and garnets. Dragons and holy crosses. I think it is because we are interested in so many things. Music and poetry, books and films, politics and peoples. We love to talk about what interests us. Some people say we talk too much, but talking is a need for us, as silence is for others.”
I waited. No response.
I continued. “I myself am here in Tucson because of my interest in the culture of the American west. Well, also because I’m studying here.” I was talking too much, even by Welsh standards, but I needed him to understand. “I love Tucson and the desert scenery,” I said. “The cactuses are marvellous. It is a fascinating country you live in.”
Still no response. “I am staying here all winter.
“Sometimes,” I said, “it gets lonely being a stranger in a new country.”
Jim picked out the prettiest bracelet: turquoises linked in a silver chain. “Turquoise would look good on you,” he said. “Your eyes are sort of green.” An apricot blush rose on his tawny cheek. I could see he feared he had gone too far, the Navajo being a shy people, unlike the Welsh, and slow to trust strangers.
Ah, Jim bach, I told him with my green eyes and my Celtic smile, it’s not at all too far you’ve gone. It’s only nicely getting started you are.
And sure enough, all winter long, through Tucson sunsets, saffron and scarlet and purple, and through desert nights when the stars burned silver in a black velvet sky, Jim taught me the strength and patience of his people, silent like metal, like stone, while my nimble Celtic tongue versed him in the language of love.