Native Love Jams
“You again,” Niigaanii says in fake surprise to seeing the scruff, brindle-shag-of-a-fur-coat and half-missing ear stick out around the side of the cedar work shed.
“You feel like oatmeal today, Mr. Puppers?”
Mr. Puppers, also known as Dinky, Scruffy and a dozen other names around the rez, tilts his head sideways, revealing an inquisitive eye to accompany the ear. He pauses, fur aglow; the pinkish-orange rays of the early morning sun kiss his face, causing him to squint.
Since his arrival two weeks ago, Mr. Puppers has made his bed behind the shed. Not in the abandoned fox den dug underneath it, nor in the weatherized, multi-unit doghouse Niigaanii built into the side of it, but under the brand-new food truck with shiny chrome hubcaps and forest green paint job parked behind it.
The truck was assigned to the Community Technicians department a few months back and Niigaanii, being the head of and sole person in the department, has been interviewing people to help get it up and running as a wild foods processing and delivery vehicle.
Niigaanii brushes a mosquito off the front of his grey, sleeveless, hooded shirt and wafts another before it can probe at long scar, that while running the length of his right bicep, doesn’t diminish from the curvature of it, “I wouldn’t have any bacon grease to go with that oatmeal though.”
Mr. Puppers snorts.
“I do have some leftover ogaa naboob. That’ll start us both off on the right track. Isn’t that how the jingle goes? The best part of waking up, is ogaa naboob in your makak?” He smiles at Mr. Puppers and chuckles to himself.
The dog takes a few steps towards Niigaanii, and sits down perkily, as if to say, “I’m ready.”
“Alright, ogaa naboob it is.”
An oversized, red ceramic soup mug with a broken handle and a white letter C sits on the ground near the woodshed; a remnant of his last relationship that has avoided the wastebin despite its degree of disrepair. He picks it up, gives it a rub on his light wash denim jeans, and returns to the little cabin behind him, dragging his hand across the wind chimes on the front porch on his way. The windchimes were a gift from his sister, Bibs, who said it was too quiet around his place after Cindy left and hung them one day while he was out.
He returns a short while later, Mr. Puppers is still sitting, his bright amber eyes watching intelligently.
Niigaanii puts the mug down a few meters in front of the dog, who begins his approach, and stops short before reaching it.
Mr. Puppers licks his chops and dances his front paws on the ground with excitement.
Niigaanii backs up, giving him room to come closer and eat comfortably, and then walks back to the porch and picks up his own matching mug with the letter N, and sits down on the steps to eat.
“We have a visitor coming today, Mr. Puppers;” Niigaanii says between bites, “A cook.”
Mr. Puppers lifts his head just enough to make eye contact. He cocks an ear.
Niigaanii laughs, “I don’t know, Mr. Puppers, she might be as good of a cook as me. But this is a family recipe,” he motions to the walleye soup Mr. Puppers laps at, “so she probably doesn’t make her ogaa naboob how you’re accustomed to. But it might be just as good.”
Satisfied with the conversation, Mr. Puppers returns his gaze to his breakfast.
A few minutes later, Niigaanii collects Mr. Pupper’s licked-clean soup mug, “Bibs is looking for a new dish washer for the community center. Pays $19.50 an hour. You interested?”
Mr. Puppers looks over while relieving himself on a patch of grass near the cabin then kicks up soil and bits of grass. He scratches his under-belly with a back leg, stretches his neck out, and flattens his ears against his head in sweet repose.
Niigaanii places the mug on the top step of the wooden porch next to his own empty dish and walks to his pickup truck. He looks back to the dog, who sniffs around at the front of the cabin where rabbits like to hang out under the juniper bushes, “Good. I’ll let her know. I’ve got berries patches to check out on my way to the community center this morning. You have a good day now, out on biscuit business, Mr. Puppers. Gigawaabamin zhebaa.”
Niigaanii drives with his head hanging out of the window, weaving in and out of dirt roads and neighborhoods tucked in communities of trees and bushes. He makes mental notes on how the wild fruits are coming along. The cool, dewy morning air damps the nape of his neck. A chill crawls up the sides of his shoulder-length ponytail of dark, wavy locks and up to his ears where hang small black stone bears. The bears were a gift from his older sister Bibs last year when he turned thirty-six.
He pulls into the gas station lot down the street from the community center and hops out. Walking up to the door he meets Jay, an older cousin, coming out of the store.
Niigaanii greets him with a smile, “Aaniin.”
“Aaniin, Niij. Hey, I’m thinking of starting a business.”
“Oh yeah? What scheme you got going this time?”
Niigaanii chuckles, thinking back to Jay’s try-out for the open Community Technician position a month back. They gathered morels in the morning and then parked in the trading post lot to process the mushrooms before distributing them to the elder’s kitchen and the high school. Niigaanii left Jay in charge of getting them packed and into the cooler on the truck while Niigaanii helped the under-staffed trading post deli crew for an hour at lunch. Jay let the morels sit by the open back door while he played “pinner poker”—poker for pinners of weed, that is—at the truck window with a couple of guys from town. Someone walked off with the morels and Jay walked home less a job but with a few extra pinners than he had at the start of the day.
“A carwash. I’ll call it, NeeJee’s SqueeJees,” Jay chuckles, “Whaddya think?”
Niigaanii laughs, “I’ll be the first in line,” he says, motioning back to the fresh mud on his truck he’d picked up that morning.”
Jay laughs, his black mustache nearly long enough to cover up his missing front tooth, “You want a job?”
“Slinging a squeegee around? Nah,” Niigaanii shakes his head, “I’m too much of a rebel, I don’t do bosses.”
Jay busts out laughing. The Community Technicians department is responsible for helping out around the rez wherever and whenever able, thus having an entire reservation of people to respond to, “Whatever you say, Niij.”
Jay hits Niigaanii on the side of the arm with his newspaper and hops into his 89 Buick regal. He puts on his shades, cranks up some powwow tunes on his stereo and kicks up dust and pebbles on his way out of the parking lot.
Niigaanii chuckles watching him leave and then walks into the gas station.
There’s an older man standing behind the counter looking captivated by his cell phone. He doesn’t look up when Niigaanii enters.
Niigaanii smiles, grabbing a bottle of locally made iced tea out of a cooler and sets it on the counter along with a newspaper, “Morning Merle. This batch any good?”
Merle continues to peer over the top of his glasses, still absorbed in his phone, “It’d be better if you’d get out to the big island for some blueberries. We’ve used the rest of the frozen ones up.”
Merle and his wife Marissa started making iced tea a couple of summers back. That summer was the last time Niigaanii brought a harvest back from the island to share. He’d been doing it for years, bringing harvests of fruits and fish to share with the community, minus the year he spent in the Twin Cities.
“There’s good patches of berries closer than the island. Juneberries are ripe behind the powwow grounds, chokecherries on Potato Hill won’t be ripe for a while yet, but the blueberries are plumping up all around the old south forest road.”
While all good locations, these patches of fruit are nothing compared to what’s out on the big island, one of two islands in the main lake on the Rainy Bay Reservation. That’s where the motherload is. But Merle doesn’t need to tell Niigaanii this. He knows.
Niigaanii’s comment about good patches of berries being off the island brings Merle’s eyes up to glance at him before looking back to his phone. He sweeps a stray bit of gray and black hair behind his left ear, causing his bright-green, paisley bandana, to hike up on that side.
“Four-fifty,” Merle says, regarding the bottle of tea and newspaper. He adjusts his bandana over his ear, “What’s the name of that woman who’s coming today? I’m looking her up on my social media.”
Niigaanii chuckles, relieved Merle hadn’t said anything else about the island, or the reason he refused to go there: Cindy turning down his marriage proposal during a hiking trip on their fifth anniversary as a couple.
Niigaanii puts the money on the counter, “Her name’s Winnow. I forget her last name.”
“Oh! That’s right. Here she is.”
Merle reads quietly for a moment then holds up his phone up to Niigaanii.
Niigaanii rolls his eyes, “You know I try to stay away from the social media, Merle.”
Merle keeps the phone hanging at eye level until Niigaanii looks, then holds it up while Niigaanii scrolls down Winnow’s profile.
Merle pulls the phone back, “What do you mean, ‘oh no?’ I find a wife for you, and this is what you do.”
“This says she’s engaged.”
Merle throws his hands in the air as if to say, so what?
Niigaanii shakes his head, “You remember the guy from the city that got me thrown in jail? The whole reason Cindy left?”
Merle keeps his comments to himself about how Niigaanii talked about him, Chris Brown, frequently in the months following Cindy’s departure, and about the fact that Niigaanii getting thrown in jail most certainly wasn’t the whole reason she left.
“Yeah?” Merle says.
“That’s who she’s engaged to. See, if you go to her information section, he’s listed there. And by the looks of her photos, they have the perfect life together.”
Niigaanii turns away from Merle, but instead of following his initial urge of walking out the door, he leans back on the counter and pulls the rubber band out of his hair, letting it bounce loose. He tucks the band in his pocket and runs his hand through his hair, “Jeez Merle. You know, I haven’t thought much about him, or her, in a little while now.”
Cindy left a month before the blueberry harvest last year, after which, Niigaanii shaved his head. Growing at a rate of about an inch a month, it’s now thirteen inches long.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if Chris Brown shows up here. And what kind of a person is this cook that’s coming? Who marries a guy like that? Dammit. I was looking forward to this week until now.”
“Forget about Chris Brown. If you ask me, Cindy was looking for a reason to leave and used the Chris Brown incident as an excuse.”
Niigaanii turns back to the counter, “I wasn’t asking, Merle.”
He grabs the tea and newspaper, tapping the newspaper on the counter. Before turning to walk out he says, “Naagaj, Merle.”
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