Notes on a Monolith
I’ve written poems about cousins who speak the language of horses. I’ve told a few stories of cowboys and neon, of canyons and floods and wild desert love. In one, I tell a story of a relative. I try to create this picture of him—pensive and proud in a pearl-buttoned shirt, jeans pressed, boots still slick with grease, cowboy hat on, sitting in a metal folding chair in the shade of a juniper tree. I try to remember the words he spoke when his insides were twisting, when his body could barely handle lukewarm water and toast, when he refused the medicine—We’re all born. And a line is drawn for us. We won’t pass that line.
This happened in 2008, 2010. I can’t remember if the relative drew a line in sand with a stick or drew a line into his palm. Maybe this scene is something my imagination crafted on a drive from Pinedale to Gallup or on a dreamy road through the Mojave, the Sonoran. But this isn’t a story about this relative’s sickness, how he left, or what he may or may not have said. This might be a story of loss, of illness. Or maybe it’s the study of a monolith rising in the middle of my heart.
He loved bowling, gunslingers, Godzilla. He loved the ferocious west. He said he heard bigfoot once in the White Mountains of Arizona, he loved weed and slingshots and laughed with his whole body. I feel okay writing this today. It’s late February, now. The sun-carrier is slowing down. The days are getting minutes longer. I feel snowmelt and spring. I feel warmth and my heart beating. I turn my face toward the sterling light.
I put on an old cowboy hat, the one with the turkey feather and beaded band. I watch The Outlaw Josey Wales. I once heard Clint Eastwood fell head-over-spurred-boots-in-love with Sondra Locke. I imagine her answering a motel room’s phone, can almost hear Clint calling her Laura Lee. I shake the hat over the shelf where we keep the houseplants, watch its dust glitter in the sunlight, collect on sharp spines and stems. I pray over water, sprinkle it on my hair. I dust my hands and shoes with ash for comfort and protection. I want to write the Josey Wales love story into a poem when I feel like writing again. I go for an evening drive, press the AM/FM button. He loved classic rock on the radio.
The beginning chords of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” rumble through the speakers. Do you remember when we used to dance? I feel a catch in my throat, my pulse quickening. I think, Maybe, the relative was right. What if our lines are drawn for us, what if everything is written backwards? Then, I’m meant to pull over and watch Jupiter and the other planets glint while deep in hurt. I’m meant to cry into a paisley-printed cloth mask on the side of the highway. I’m meant to leave these horses on mesas, this dirt. I’m meant to keep driving west, to never look back.
If my notes ran along his line, if they started at the end and moved toward his birth, I’d have to start with telling you that we put him away on a Friday morning, late, late fall. Clouds moved in on a cold wind from the west. I thought of archery, all the trucks he kept running and not running, how he took me to buy school clothes in Santa Fe. I remembered the pink Wranglers, the button up shirts, the basketball shoes, that we saw a herd of antelope moving bird-like over yellow grass. I thought of my first fishing pole, Asaayi Lake, our first concert, Ozzfest in 2004. The binoculars he left in his glovebox, the dreams of Alaska and San Francisco, the stories of his grandfather and his favorite bands, his one, two, three margaritas—
I watched the clouds move to reveal a sterling sun, watched tiny ice crystals land and catch silver light in my mother’s hair. I knew that a deep snow would lift his footprints from the earth. A grandmother called later that day. Did you notice the weather? Our son was welcomed in. He will be a warrior for you.
If I kept walking this line and making my way toward the beginning, I’d tell you about how his uncle, a tough, old cowboy in his eighties, told us to put him away like we are supposed to. I’d have to add that the uncle’s daughter said he didn’t come out of his room for days. I’d have to tell you how monuments of mothers fell into a couch in grief. I’d have to start with trying to describe how the howls of disbelief and sadness broke the quiet of a cold, November morning. My brother, Our Son, the saddest refrain, played in a haze of a trying-to-call-him-back. I’d have to tell you that I was the one with the strongest lungs, a runner, that I went into the house, was asked to put his favorites together. I wore goggles, shopping bags around my shoes, an NC-95 mask, searched for his best clothes, his bracelet, that tiny mountain range of turquoise, his favorite shoes. I ignored the laundry left in the basket, the unmade bed, the cups half-filled with coffee. I didn’t find the bracelet. I left a towel outside. I removed my clothes, threw them in a trash bag, drove home barefoot and wrapped in a bleach-spotted towel.
I’d tell you that we turned away relatives who came to our door, ate turkey and frybread in silence with tears running down fire-warmed cheeks, the smoke smell living in our unwashed hair. I’d say that I am okay with skipping November from here on out, that I’ve had nightmares of tangles of tubes, of hands pushing down on the space between the lungs. I see so many in airless rooms alone.
He bought me a pocketknife for my birthday in 2019, wrote a note that said, Grandpa always carried one. I thought you should, too. Once, he took me to watch 8 seconds. In the movie, a cowboy gets pierced near his heart and dies. I cried, he teased me. This is where I learned the fragility of hearts, this cowboy’s tragedy stayed with me for months. Remembering this, he took me to a rodeo in Window Rock, Arizona to watch the fallen cowboy’s friend ride a bull named Badger or Raging River or something like this. We jumped in his maroon pickup, ran red lights, dodged lines of fair traffic to catch the cowboy just before he walked into his hotel room. I had my ballcap signed. Later, he took me to a carnival where we rode the Ferris Wheel round and round, played carnival games. I shot a tower of cups down, won a giant, stuffed bulldog. Signed cap on my head, I proudly carried my treasures, he told me I was good shot.
Once, we held a weeklong ceremony. The Lakers were playing for the championship. I couldn’t stop talking about the games, said the series was something I couldn’t miss. We strung antennae wrapped in foil around a cookshack to watch basketball on a radio-sized t.v.
If our lives are written backwards, he or she or they drew your line to end in 2020. I picture your line in a deep mountain snow or maybe it’s a print made from the drag of a horse’s tail. I still have your notebook from a culture class you took in 2009. You told me to use the notes for my writing. Winter, sheep, seeds, Old Fort Ruin, Men were meant to go to war in winter written with lead pencil, I’m careful not to blur them. I’m astonished at how your handwriting mirrors my mother’s.
There is this drawing on the cover, dated January 13, 2009. A line comes up from the ground. We won’t pass this line. This line is labeled “fireworks.” Just above the line are two stars and planets. A stick figure with long hair walks toward a house. Her label reads, “Shelby watching fireworks.” I wonder who or where Shelby is. I imagine she was a student of yours. I imagine you helping her bring a story to life.
I took a picture of you in summer of 2019. We tore down and later repaired a wall down at our old place. You hung your ballcap on an old chair. I watched dust glitter in strips of light. The picture is mostly sagebrush and dirt and a blue, blue sky and some clouds trying to become a monsoon. But in its corner is you, your silhouette a monolith. Even before all of this, I looked at the picture and wondered what you thought about as you looked out at all that land. Even before, I thought you looked like a soldier who was taking in his home. You looked like you were ready to leave for a war.
Shi Yaz, a relative sees you dancing. I listened to ZZ Top on the way to work today. I see you in the sun, in all of those westerns. I hear you when my students throw their heads back in laughter, see you in the beads and pollen dust of a nice hatband. I feel you rounding the corner in the hallways of the school we both taught in for one year. I look up at all of those stars or planets shining blue, yellow, sterling, just like Shelby does in your drawing—
Shi Yaz, I imagine you, a monolith standing among them, that you’re in the deep wide somewhere. You’re watching the Pacific from the top of The Golden Gate Bridge. You’re drinking glacier water somewhere in Alaska. You’re sitting in the branches of that old cottonwood tree. I hold the pocket knife, its pearl handle warms in my palm. I bring the cloth mask over my mouth and nose. I go for a run, stop to watch heartbeats come up through my wrist.
On the run, I imagine you a mythical warrior with the powers of Bruce Lee, Clint Eastwood, Godzilla combined, a ten-point antler crown atop your head. You’re young and strong with lungs full of air. You’re holding a shot of tequila in one hand, a slingshot in the other. It sits over your indestructible, beating heart.
About Paige Buffington
Paige Buffington’s family is originally from Tohatchi, N.M., a small town sitting in the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation. She is Navajo, of the Bear Enemies Clan born for White People.
She received both a BFA and MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has been published in The Dine Reader, Narrative, Terrain. Org, Yellow Medicine Review, and Contra Viento, among others.
She currently lives in Gallup, N.M. She is an elementary school teacher and is currently working on her first book of narrative poems.