When I landed the McDonald’s job, I was surprised to learn that I was the only teenager. I thought fast food was the only place where teenagers could get jobs. But most of the workers were college students or college-effing-graduates. One of the cooks has an Electrical Engineering degree. And he’s using all that science education to make sure there are two pickles, and only two pickles, on the hamburgers.
I don’t mean to make fun of my co-workers. They’re mostly cool. I’m angry at this effing country for making these adults work at McDonald’s. The woman who works the drive-through is a forty-five-year-old single mother and has three kids. How the hell does she pay for anything with her McDonald’s wages?
And don’t think it’s an accident that 99% of my co-workers are Black and Latino. I’m Native American and I’m pretty dark for a mixed-blood urban Indian. The only thing white in this McDonald’s are the effing vanilla milkshakes.
Sometimes, I feel guilty that I have this job. There might be other mothers and fathers who need it. But it ain’t like my parents are rich. My Mom, the Indian, is an Academic Advisor at the University of Washington, and makes decent cash, but my Dad, the white guy, got laid off from Boeing two years ago and can’t get a job anywhere else. Sooner or later, he’s probably going to be making french fries alongside me.
I’m saving my money for college. I screwed off my first two years of high school, like too many Indians do, so I don’t have the grades for a four-year school. But Seattle has some awesome community colleges. I can kick ass in my studies there and earn my way into a university somewhere close to home.
These are desperate times, and I’m not as desperate as a lot of people, but I’m desperate enough to need this job.
There’s an elderly white man who works here. His reflexes are too slow to use any of the equipment, so he greets people at the door and clears and cleans tables.
He’s got a sharp mind, though. I like what he has to say. We take our breaks together. We put on coats to cover our McDonald’s polo shirts, walk a block, step into an alley, and smoke.
His wife died ten years ago.
“Old husbands aren’t supposed to live longer than old wives,” he said. “My wife should be the widow sitting with other old widows making fun of their dead husbands.”
He has a girlfriend, though. A few girlfriends, actually.
“When you’re a single man in the old folks home,” he said, “you spend a lot of time dancing with different women.”
“Dancing is what you geezers call it?” I said. “You’re, like, the oldest playboy in the world.”
After a few months of cigarette friendship, he asked me to call him Grandfather with a capital G.
“Isn’t that what you Indians call your respected elders?” he said. “Not grandpa or gramps or old man or geezer. It’s Grandfather like it was my royal name.”
All four of my grandparents, two Indian and two white, died before I was born, so I didn’t have any traditional elders. I needed a grandfather. I was hungry for a grandfather.
“Grandfather,” I said. “It’s time to go back to work.”
He smiled as big as I’d ever seen. He loved the respect. I loved respecting him. In this sad country, respect is the only thing most of us can afford.
On the mornings after house parties, I gather the empty, half-empty, and nearly full beer cans, empty them into the sink, crush them flat, and throw them into the bed of my grandmother’s truck.
She’s been dead for three years but it is still her truck. I’m only borrowing it from her ghost. It has over three hundred thousand miles on the odometer but I keep it running with tools, prayers, and hand-drum honor songs.
Way-ya-hey-ya, start, engine, start! Way-ya-hey-ya, don’t break my heart!
When the truck bed is filled with cans, I tie a sheet over them to keep them from flying out, and drive off my reservation into Spokane, Washington.
I’m seventeen but don’t have a driver’s license or even a learner’s permit. My family is poor and we can’t afford driver’s ed. And I can’t take the driving test if I haven’t passed driver’s ed. But I don’t need official approval to drive safely. I obey the speed limit, check my mirrors often, and keep both hands on the wheel.
Way-ya-hey-hey, go, go, little truck, speed along with skill and luck, way-ya-ho-hey.
Once in Spokane, I drive to the recycling center near the abandoned East Sprague Drive-In and sell my aluminum cans for fifty-five cents per pound. I’ve done the math:
- I need to sell 818 pounds in order to make $450.
- I need $450 in order to pay for the SAT prep course that guarantees I’ll raise my test scores by 20%.
- In the competition to win scholarships and admission into great colleges, a great SAT score makes all the difference.
My parents live on government welfare and tribal charity. Their full-time job is sadness. Neither of them graduated high school and they haven’t lived anywhere but on our reservation. But, sober or drunk, they have always played hand-drums and sang the ancient and new songs:
Way-yay-hey-hey, I can’t win or lose, I got rez-rez-reservation blues, Ya-ya-hey-hey.
They have taught me to sing and drum. And though I don’t believe in God, I believe a beautiful song is approximately God. So I sing and drum with my mother and father. I sing with my tribe.
And I travel our reservation, by car and foot, to collect aluminum cans. Pound by pound, dollar by dollar, I am preparing myself for the test, for the most important questions of my life:
Complete the Sentence: When the Indian boy, poor and…, decided that he had to… his reservation, he felt…
- suicidally depressed…escape…like he was trying to save his life
- loyal to his tribe…remain on…that he had no other choice
- very intelligent…help…that a college education was vital
- devoted to his parents…abandon them and…like a traitor
- ambitious…see the world beyond…elated and terrified
When I take that SAT, I will sing, if only in my imagination, because I can’t bring in my real drum. I will sing to lessen my fear. And I will sing about this crazy life:
Ya-ya-hey-hey, you can’t leave and you can’t stay, way-ya-hey-hey.
Ya-ya-hey-hey, you got too many questions too many days, way-ya-hey-hey.
Ya-ya-hey-hey. Should you hate? Or should you love? Way-ya-hey-hey.
Ya-ya-hey-hey. The answer is All of the Above. Way-ya-hey-hey.
After school, after football practice, every day for three years, John and I walked to the grocery store in our little town and bought candy, potato chips, and soda pop. It was a ceremony. We said hello to the old couple who owned the store, stepped into the walk-in cooler, grabbed our cold drinks, paid for them and our other snacks, and headed to John’s house or mine, depending on what our parents were planning to cook for dinner.
It was an average life for two average kids.
But, one day, in November of our senior year, John and I, as usual, stepped into the cooler and grabbed our favorite cans of pop. But then we looked at each other and we both had the same thought. I don’t know why it happened. Without saying a word, John and I grabbed three six-packs of soda and stuffed them into our duffle bags. Carrying the carbonated loot, we paid for our usual junk food, walked to John’s house, raced into his bedroom and celebrated. We drank all that pop and got wound up and stupid on sugar and caffeine. We could have stolen beer but we were athletes. And jocks did not get drunk in our school.
The next morning, we met up before school, and vowed to never do it again. One time was kind of innocent, but more than that would be criminal.
But after practice that night, we did it again. Then again the day after that. We shoplifted for a week.
The thrill and guilt grew bigger each time.
We joked and laughed with the old people who owned the store. We paid for five bucks of snacks as we stole twenty more.
Then I couldn’t do it anymore.
“John,” I said. “We have to stop. We’re going to get caught. They’ll kick us off the team. They might throw us out of school.”
“Just one more time,” he said. “Come on, Pete. They’re too old to catch us.”
“I can’t do it, man.”
“You’ve always been a wuss.”
I walked home alone while John went to the store. I thought he might text or call me after he left the store. I didn’t hear anything from him.
When I got to school the next morning, I immediately heard the bad news. John had been caught shoplifting. I knew they’d wonder how I was involved. John and I went everywhere together.
Halfway through first period, I was summoned to the principal’s office. He was there with the superintendent, the school counselor, and the football coach. It felt like an interrogation.
“Peter,” the principal said. “I’m sure you know why you’re here.”
“Because of John,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Did you know what he was doing? Were you involved?”
I wanted to tell the truth. I knew that I should confess. But it felt like I’d destroy my life by admitting to the crime. I wondered if John had already told them that I’d stolen nearly as often as he had. Did he do the right thing?
“Pete,” the principal asked again. “Were you involved in this?”
“No, sir,” I said.
They all studied my face. They knew I was lying. They wouldn’t let me get away with it.
“Okay, Pete,” the principal said. “John already told us he did it alone.”
I could tell they hadn’t believed him, either. But there was nothing they could do. I hadn’t confessed and John had denied that I was a thief, too. He was kicked off the football team, sentenced to community service picking up litter around town, and was suspended from school for a month.
During that month, he and I didn’t see each other. We didn’t call or text. We’d been constantly together for years but things had changed. I don’t know why he didn’t contact me. But I was too ashamed to talk to him. I’d let him take all the punishment. I kept playing football. I didn’t have to scoop up dog shit while my classmates watched. I wasn’t suspended. And my reputation wasn’t ruined. I wasn’t branded as a good kid gone bad. In fact, some people thought John had betrayed me by shoplifting and nearly getting me into trouble.
When John came back to school, he wouldn’t look at me. And I wouldn’t look at him. This silence went on for the rest of the year. We ignored each other at our graduation ceremony. Our parents ignored each other, too.
Late that night, at a kegger down by the river, we stood at separate campfires. I didn’t drink anything. But he got really drunk. I was worried for him. He caught me staring. He threw his beer into the fire and staggered up to me.
He grabbed me by my shirt and shook me.
“You aren’t who I thought you were,” he said.
“Neither are you,” I said.