Jesse Donaldson


Jesse Donaldson is a graduate of Kenyon College and The Michener Center for Writers. He’s worked as a groundskeeper for the Houston Astros, a maintenance man, and a professor. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Little Star, The Greensboro Review, Confrontation, and The Oxford American. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

The First Moons of Sitting Bull

My wife Janice gave birth to a ghost baby, which proved to be a blessing of sorts, seeing as during her last trimester Janice complained daily about the impending pain of childbirth. “You did this to me,” she liked to say. I didn’t deny it. Janice and my relationship, which at some point may have been tender, was more often filled with a turbulence the pregnancy did little to settle.

In the months before she gave birth, Janice became closer to my father than me. Dad still lived in our spare room then, and he and Janice gossiped and played board games while I was at work. When I moved Dad into a retirement home to make room for the baby, Janice fell into a deep depression. She said I was heartless. Dad was crestfallen too. He ignored my phone calls but accepted the occasional gift basket so long as I signed the card from someone other than myself. He seemed particularly fond of no-name presidents like Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur.

I don’t know if Janice kept in touch with Dad. She refused to talk to me about him or much else for that matter. Intimacy was out of the question. She spent most her pregnancy on the couch, her swollen feet perched on the coffee table. Her socks were always dirty. I offered to launder them once, but Janice shot me a piercing look.

Compared to the drama leading up to it, the birth itself was relatively simple. Our ethereal little bundle of joy eased out of Janice and passed right through Dr. Gilda Vincent’s gloved hands. He solidified as he tumbled towards the ground, as if on a suicide mission, and I grabbed the umbilical cord to save him. He swayed back and forth at my feet like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Dr. Gilda, this sham healer who’d spent the last months of Janice’s pregnancy rubbing her belly with mint tea and ginger, consoled Janice as I held the cord. “It’ll be okay, honey,” Dr. Gilda cooed to Janice. “It’s all over now.” The baby’s swing slowed to a stop and I lifted my son to my face. I didn’t recognize his glassy eyes.


Janice stayed in the hospital for rehabilitative treatments. Dr. Gilda explained to me that the birth, the incorporeality of our child had been emotionally traumatic for Janice. Our son stayed in the hospital that first week as well—never really deciding whether or not he wanted to be a regular baby or something less substantial. When it came time to take him home, I visited Janice’s room and found Dr. Gilda dabbing her forehead with a damp cloth and whispering sweet babble in her ear. Dr. Gilda said Janice needed more convalescence and that I would need to take our son home alone.

The nurse at the baby holding station said my little boy had been a handful. When she said this, he flung his limbs like an insect caught on its back and fell through the bottom of the crib, landing on some pillows beneath. “That’s his favorite trick,” the nurse said and laughed a raspy tenor. “He never slips through the pillows.” The nurse’s dark eyes reminded me of a chipmunk’s, and I found the way she shifted her weight from one leg to the other heartbreakingly cute. When she leaned over to pick up our baby boy, midnight colored bangs fell before her eyes and her hands passed right through him, and I found myself hoping my son would stay immaterial a while longer.

“How’s it feel when that happens?” I asked.

“What’s that?”

“When he turns ghosty and you touch him?”

She looked up at the fluorescent lights. “Cold,” she said.

“That makes sense.”

I bent closer to see my son and he coagulated.

“He needs a name,” the nurse said as she handed me the release papers. Janice and I had talked about names. I liked simple names like Sam and Mac. Janice wanted something more ornate like Prentice or Oliver. I probably should have consulted with her, but I couldn’t bear the thought of another fight with Janice. I studied the blank lines for a first and middle name. Such and Such Donaldson. Baby Boy Donaldson. Joe Schmo Donaldson. I wrote Sitting Bull, signed the papers, and handed the nurse the clipboard. Janice and I had never discussed the name Sitting Bull, but I knew that Indians have lots of ghosts from a book I read about vision quests and dream catchers and things like that, so I thought it appropriate. “Let’s go you wild Indian,” I said.

I had parked in a one-hour zone, and by the time I found the car in the parking lot, there was a ticket. I cursed. I yelled fuck. Then I yelled goddammit. Then I realized I was carrying Sitting Bull and apologized to him and told him not to be like his father. I wondered how many times I would say that over the years, how many times Janice would say the same.

On the drive home Sitting Bull sat solidly passenger side. I hadn’t been able to figure out how to secure the car seat in the back since I’m neither an engineer nor an idiot savant. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other alternating between Sitting Bull and the stereo. Fleetwood Mac’s “Save me a Place” was on the classic rock station, and when I pulled into the drive, I let the car run so we could hear Lindsey Buckingham sing the last notes. “Now that’s a good song,” I said to Sitting Bull and took a moment to marvel at my own dadness.

Life fell into a routine of sorts. I took Sitting Bull to see Janice each day so he could have a meal from the source and picked up bottles of breast milk so I could feed him at home. When I was in her hospital room, Janice would turn up the sound on the television and ignore me, though Sitting Bull seemed to enjoy her company. He sat solidly on her stomach after each meal, belched, and watched TV. Janice didn’t coo over him as I thought a new mother should, but I chalked this up to the trauma Dr. Gilda always talked about. I expected Janice to be watching Dr. Phil or Judge Judy and comparing our lives to those of other wretched people, but Dr. Gilda had turned Janice on to PBS. I always wanted to stick around longer and learn more about some indigenous tribe or the sperm whale or Stonehenge, but Janice didn’t take kindly to that idea.

Sitting Bull’s features almost settled if Janice and I were in the same room and not arguing, but he never seemed completely comfortable, and as soon as we disagreed, he would cry and ghost up. Janice would inevitably blame me for this and I would invariably apologize.

Dr. Gilda suggested Janice and I start spending our time with Sitting Bull apart, and so I was exiled to the hospital’s waiting room to read last year’s magazines while Sitting Bull and his mother bonded. It was just a couple weeks into his life and our son was already being passed between us like a halfling in a custody battle. The nurses acted as intermediaries—handing me bottles of breast milk and carrying Sitting Bull to Janice. Many of them, perhaps debriefed by Dr. Gilda, shot me dirty looks. Dr. Gilda liked to walk by and ignore me and the nurses would snicker. I felt like an interloper at a slumber party, a forced invite—constantly on the outside of wordless jokes of which I was the butt. The only nurse who didn’t make me feel like mud was the black-haired nurse who’d taken a shine to Sitting Bull the day I took him home. I remember once she pointed the bottles of Janice’s milk at me and made a sound like a toy gun popping. “Bang Bang Bang.”

“That’s some dangerous milk.” I said.

She kind of smiled in return and said, “Boom,” as she handed me the bottles. Her hips swung way far left and way far right as she walked away, and I wanted to follow her around the hospital like a stray mutt.

At home Sitting Bull and I mined my record collection, focusing on a different year each day. In 1979, the year I was born, The Clash released London Calling and Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. It was a good year for music. The Knack’s “My Sharona” hit number one and Blondie recorded “Heart of Glass.” When a record wasn’t playing, Sitting Bull liked to sit on the stereo and spin. When he got tired or dizzy, he would start to ghost up and I would put him down on the carpet. One time I caught him passing his hand through the floor to the basement. He was very precocious, and I was beginning to feel proud.

I had three salaried months to spend with Sitting Bull—the result of an equal male-female benefits package from this progressive actuary firm where I worked—and I began researching my family history to see if we had any ghosts in our past. I became obsessed with finding some supernatural hereditary link between Sitting Bull and me but found none. My ancestors had died natural deaths, lived above the poverty line, and avoided scandal, revolution, and tragedy as a general rule. Janice’s family, like mine, had no apparent ghost lineage. They’d been Scandinavian farmers and then Minnesotan farmers. If possible, her family was more boring than my own.

I’d come to suspect Janice had been cheating on me, perhaps with an Indian, but as far as I was aware, we didn’t know any Indians. I’d never seen an Indian in our neighborhood. The only one I could even think of was Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I watched the movie with Sitting Bull to see if he would cheer up when Chief entered the frame or in that final scene where he breaks free into the hinterlands, but Sitting Bull only stayed awake for the movie’s first ten minutes. As I watched, I imagined Chief and Janice at a candlelit dinner, him reaching to pour her another glass of wine, her foot slipping from its heel and sliding between his tree trunk legs and into his crotch. I alternated between laughing and crying as Sitting Bull sputtered in his sleep.

It didn’t help my anxieties that Sitting Bull resolutely refused to define his features. His eyes stayed this glassy black that was no eye color I’d ever seen and he didn’t grow any hair and his pudgy face looked more like rice pudding than either Janice or me. I waited for some stranger to say we looked alike but no one ever did.

One day I called my father at the retirement home to ask him about our family’s genealogy. He refused my call at first and I only got through to him after pretending to be Vice President Biden. “You’re a grandfather,” I said.

“Who’s this?” he asked.

“It’s your son. I had a boy myself. Your grandson. You should meet him.”

“I had a son,” he said.

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Dad didn’t respond, so I came to the point. “Hey Pop,” I said, “Did we ever have any ghosts in the family?”

I waited for a response and was afraid he’d hung up when he blurted out, “I’m a vampire, baby!” I knew it was his favorite Neil Young lyric but still I worried that his brain had become so addled that associations no longer made sense, that when he thought of ghosts his mind pictured vampires instead. Then again, maybe he was just fucking with me. Dad was sly like that. Sitting Bull was sitting next to the phone, and he smiled at Dad’s voice and spoke baby gibberish at the receiver, but dad didn’t feel like talking anymore and pretended to snore until I hung up.


A month into Sitting Bull’s life, Dr. Gilda moved Janice into the Endless Trauma Ward. I still made the daily trip to pick up Janice’s breast milk and once or twice I popped my head in to say hello, but Janice and I had little to say to one another. I guess we didn’t know where to begin.

One day I saw Dr. Gilda kissing Janice and not some “It’ll be all right” peck on the cheek but a full blown, deep, tongue-wrestling sort of kiss. I considered bursting through the door to confront them, but I found myself paralyzed. Sitting Bull was perched on my hip and he squealed and a couple nurses marched down the hall and shooed us away. I think I was the last person in the hospital to realize I’d lost my wife to a lesbian doctor. “You forgot the milk,” one of the nurses said as I was waiting for the elevator with Sitting Bull. Instead of answering I bolted for the stairs. It wasn’t a terribly subtle move.

In the stairwell I ran into the black-haired nurse and she stopped me and said I shouldn’t be running with my baby as if he were a football. I apologized because she was right and then I started tearing up because I felt like just about anyone else in the world would have been better at taking care of Sitting Bull than I was, and as much I wanted to be angry at Janice for kissing Dr. Gilda, I hadn’t given her much reason not to. I’d mainly made a mess of life, and it was all the worse to realize it in front of the black-haired nurse because I wanted her to like me even though I was married and had a new baby boy and shouldn’t be thinking such things, even though I was the sort of guy who cries when things go wrong.

“Buck up,” she said and I blinked back the tears and sniffled once and tried to steady my trembling lip. She reached out and touched Sitting Bull’s bald head and he smiled his toothless baby smile and my worries, for a moment, disappeared. Then she took a pen from her baby blue scrubs and took my free hand and wrote her name and number.

“Pauline,” I said.

“Call if it all becomes too much to handle,” she said.

Back at the house, I set Sitting Bull in his crib and fluffed the pillows beneath it. Without Janice’s milk, Sitting Bull flickered on and off—very unsure of his body. I should’ve stayed to comfort him, but instead I walked upstairs to Janice’s cramped “office,” which was really just a bathroom with a bookshelf perched inside the tub and a small desk set before the toilet. I couldn’t help but compare the Janice who’d built her own office in our spare bathroom to the Janice being mothered like an invalid by Dr. Gilda and feel sad. My heart began to fill with a tender, loving thought that I pushed into the recesses of my body.

I searched through Janice’s computer files for some clue into Sitting Bull’s ghostiness and found a folder in her email titled “Johns” with over fifty messages. They ran the gamut from Adam on June 7, 2012 to Zeke on October 16, 2008.

I started to read:

dear adam

you make me feel like a volcano exploding from the ocean. thats how hawaii was made. i didn’t know i could come so hard. meet me at the hyatt again this weekend.


fuck you adam

you dont even have the balls to show. i can’t believe i waited for two hours for an ugly ugly man like you.

ps. my names not even claire, you fuck.


your wife will never know a thing. lets meet in the parking lot of lakeside golf course friday at two. if you arent there, this is over. i have other options.

yours in sin.


This went on for a while. More than the large number of suitors, the fact that Janice had created a special name for each—Abigail, Leah, Joan, Shirley—hurt me. Had I really stopped paying that much attention?

I found a dusty bottle of bourbon in the kitchen cabinet before rereading the litany of Janice’s indiscretions. I searched for some reference to her pregnancy—a busted condom, talk of eloping—some proof of Sitting Bull’s true parentage. But there was nothing.

By the time I’d finished, the sun had fallen and the house was shrouded in dark. I stumbled like a drunken bear to Sitting Bull’s crib and studied his face. I tried to recreate the features of his father, but all I could imagine was a svelte man with a bowl of rice pudding for a head. Sitting Bull started wailing and turning ghosty, so I dipped my finger in the bourbon and rubbed it on his mealy gums. He cried louder at first but soon went to sleep. I remembered that song about Ira Hayes and worried about instilling bad habits in Sitting Bull. I wondered if our relationship was rapidly becoming more uncle to nephew than father to son. Then again, I was probably more of a surrogate dad than a real dad anyway.

I couldn’t get the thought of Janice and her lovers, of Janice and Dr. Gilda out of my head, and so I imagined myself with Pauline as a sort of revenge, not that it made me feel better. My life was one giant fantasy. I imagined affairs whereas Janice actually had them.

I felt so lost. I went back to Sitting Bull and picked him up. His body was light, and I knew he was unhappy because my hands almost passed through him. Sitting Bull was my only real tether to the world, so I sat on the couch and let him sleep on my chest. His heart beat fast and he felt feverish but his eyes stayed shut. I think he ghosted up because it felt like part of him fell inside me, a tiny hand pressing into my heart, and I had wondrous dreams as he snored a little baby snore.

In the morning, I apologized to Sitting Bull for my behavior the night before. I promised I’d make it up to him when I bought him his first bike, promised him top of the line, but he couldn’t care less about my empty promises. When he gained the strength, he howled and shook a fist and punched me in the nose. His unmuscled baby hands felt like raw meat on my face—loving, wonderful raw meat. Sitting Bull was my best friend, and he didn’t give me a hard time like most people, and I knew I had to get over worrying about his parentage and start acting like a real dad.

When I took Bull to the hospital the next day to see his mother, I learned that Janice was being moved to Gilda Vincent’s Domicile for Traumatized Women. As best I could tell this was just Dr. Gilda’s residence—a one and a half-story Cape Cod that was significantly nicer than our own clapboard ranch. A brick walkway bordered with phlox and lilies and roses led to the front door, and Dr. Gilda’s gleaming new Subaru wagon gloated in the pea gravel drive. I dropped Bull off every couple days for some mommy time but never found the opportunity to talk to Janice about the past, about her cheating or my own failures as a husband. Dr. Gilda would always come to the door and click her tongue if I tried any small talk. When the door closed, I would gesture towards the house with my middle finger. Then I’d drive home and fantasize about Pauline. I wanted to cup my hands around her oval face, swim with her in blue lakes, and sleep with her on soft, willowy grass. I didn’t feel comfortable indulging in my fantasies with Sitting Bull in the house, but when he was gone, desire took hold.

One day, as I picked Bull up, I asked Janice if there were any ghosts in her family, but Dr. Gilda started in on her clucking routine. I thought Janice tried to tell me something through clenched teeth, but then a fly flew into her face, and Dr. Gilda cursed me for letting insects into her home and slammed the door.

I didn’t know how much longer our lives could go on like this. I felt like I owed Bull an explanation. He always seemed happiest in those moments after Janice and I exchanged him, as if buoyed by this momentary family unit, but he’d start turning waiflike as soon as he realized it was just me and him again. On the day of the fly incident, we were listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, and I said, “Hey Bull, speaking of rumors, I think your mother’s been unfaithful.” Sitting Bull’s feet jangled to “Don’t Stop.” “Also, I think your mother’s a lesbian.” He continued to dance as if I’d said nothing important. “What do you think about that?” I asked. His face was inscrutable.


A couple weeks into Janice’s internment at Dr. Gilda’s domicile, the good doctor called me and said I should stop bringing Sitting Bull by to see his mother. Dr. Gilda said she’d heard of ancient tribes in the Orient that estrange mothers from their sons in order to strengthen the innate bond, and that this might help make Sitting Bull whole. I argued against her logic—I knew Sitting Bull loved his mother even if I didn’t anymore—but what choice did I have? I asked Dr. Gilda if this was what Janice wanted and she handed the phone over so Janice could let out a meek, “yes,” that saddened me more than anything she’d said in years.

Sitting Bull didn’t respond well this change in our routine. He refused to drink his formula and turned more amorphous than ever and no amount of seventies pop could soothe him. My heart went out to the little guy. He deserved better. I was lost and scared and when I could take it no more, I called Pauline and asked for help.

She came over in a cab right away and made cooing noises at Sitting Bull and tickled his belly. He giggled and writhed with mirth for the first time in days. Pauline’s face was directly in front of mine as she played with him, and it was beautiful. I wanted to trace her cheeks with my fingertips and brush the ends of her hair against my nose. She caught me staring and gave me a queer look, so I stood up and put on a David Bowie record. Pauline pumped her fist and sang the backup singers’ parts to “Modern Love” while I mimed the sax solo and Sitting Bull did his little shimmy of a dance like a crustacean crawling on the ocean floor.

After the song, we settled in and Pauline took to criticizing my housekeeping and the poor selection of food. She asked for the car keys and the credit card, both of which I promptly handed over. “Clean up all this paper before I get back,” she said, pointing to the piles of genealogy I’d amassed while searching for the roots of Sitting Bull’s amorphousness.

The house, free from clutter, found new life, so I opened the windows, and a blue butterfly flew in through a hole in the screen and landed on Sitting Bull. Then he clapped his hands together and crushed it. I told Sitting Bull that he shouldn’t kill butterflies, but I was secretly proud his hands were capable of such violence.

Even though all the paperwork had been cleaned up, Janice’s sleek laptop preened on the floor, tempting me to read over her sexual escapades again and again. There were love missives to Brian, Clint, Doug, and Frank. Coy notes to Gaylord, Ishmael, and John. Secret memos to Kwame, Nick, and Tom. Passionate dispatches to Ulrich and Walt. I scanned them all, punished myself for being such a weak husband. I didn’t hear Pauline return, didn’t even realize that she was standing behind me and had started to read along.

“Having fun?” she said after a while. I slammed the lid of the laptop like a thief caught.

“No, I—. My wife was cheating on me,” I said. “This is her laptop.”

“Oh.” Pauline handed me Sitting Bull and then swiped the laptop and dashed off to the bathroom. I got there just in time to watch her drop it in the tub and turn the faucet on. There were no sparks or explosions, just the soft rippling of water. “Burning it would have been more dramatic, don’t you think?” she said, her arms held out to take Sitting Bull back. I handed him over. “We have to figure out how to make this little guy forever solid, don’t we?” she said.

We cooked dinner as a family that night and took turns feeding Bull his bottle, which he nursed reluctantly. We watched the sun set even though it was cloudy and there wasn’t much to see. We played a game of Boggle. Pauline joined me in the bedroom at night and we curled our bodies around Sitting Bull. Our noses and knees and toes met to create a nest and a couple times we kissed.

In the morning, I said her name. “Pauline.” I liked the name and told her so. I said it over and over again beneath my breath, just a whisper, “Pauline, Paw-line, Poll-lean.” She put her finger to my mouth and said, “Sshh.”

Pauline didn’t return to the hospital that day or the next or any days after that. Considering the way she took to life with Sitting Bull and me, I think she’d been looking for a reason to leave. She admitted that she was more candy striper than official nurse and I could tell it was a sensitive subject, so I pointed out how great she’d been with Sitting Bull and that seemed to make her happy. Bull got on with her as if she were his true mother, which I figured was fine since I had doubts as to whether I was his true father, but no matter how much smoother the rhythms of life became with Pauline around, things were still touch and go with Sitting Bull. He never seemed comfortable in his own skin.

After a while even Pauline couldn’t convince him to take a bottle of formula. I tried to call Janice at Dr. Gilda’s, knowing that what Bull wanted most of all was some time with his mother, but the answering machine would pick up after a couple rings and none of my messages were returned. I was furious with Janice; Sitting Bull was becoming more transparent each day.

Pauline’s family had a lake house and she suggested we try leaving town and seeing if the country air and a change of scenery might make Bull happier. I was willing to try anything. On the way out of town, I stopped by the retirement home because Dad’s birthday was coming up and I figured I should apologize for missing it. I tried to get in to see the old man but was told I’d been put on a no admittance list.

I was ready to give up when Pauline put on her old nurse’s outfit and snuck by the receptionist and came out a few minutes later rolling Dad in a wheelchair. “He looks just like you,” she said as she ushered my father through the front door. “Going out for a walk,” she called out to the receptionist.

“What are you doing?” I asked as she wheeled Dad towards the car.

“It’s sad in there,” Pauline said. Dad nodded in agreement and moved his hands towards her breasts. She brushed them away as if they were meddlesome flies. “Maybe the country air will do him some good as well,” she said and settled Dad into the backseat. Dad grunted at Sitting Bull, and I noticed his skin turn a shade pinker.

Our second stop was Dr. Gilda’s. Pauline said I had to at least give Janice the chance to see Sitting Bull before taking him away, but when I knocked, Dr. Gilda answered and said Janice was busy. Dr. Gilda’s face had a wild look and her hair was loose like a banshee. I tried to see past her into the house, but she shifted in the door frame to block my view. All of a sudden I felt very scared for Janice. She was still my wife.

“I drew up some divorce papers,” I said, willing to try anything to break through Dr. Gilda’s blockade. “Janice is all yours,” I said. “But I want her to see Sitting Bull before we leave.”

I lifted Bull’s bassinet for Dr. Gilda’s inspection. Her mouth curled into a cruel smile. Her teeth were more vulpine than I remembered. “That is good news,” she said and allowed Bull and Janice one minute and not a second longer. Doctor’s orders.

Janice came out in a ratty gown. Her skin was sallow, her eyes dilated. “Janice?” I said.

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing at Pauline, who was in the car bopping her head to music.

“That’s Pauline,” I said.

“She looks nice.” Janice’s gown looked like a large pillowcase with holes for her head and arms.

“She is,” I said. “We’re going to the lake for a bit. I brought Bull to see you before we leave. He hasn’t been well.” Janice’s face brightened at the mention of Sitting Bull and she leaned over the bassinet and Bull cried with delight. “Let me take you away from this place,” I whispered into Janice’s ear as she played with Bull.

Dr. Gilda caught my eye from the shadows of her house. “That’s enough,” she said, but I saw in Janice’s face that she wanted to leave, so I yelled “Run!” and grabbed Janice’s arm and dragged her towards the car. Dr. Gilda followed us screaming, but Pauline opened the back door and Janice jumped in. She hugged Dad hello and Pauline stepped in behind and locked the door. I settled Sitting Bull passenger-side while Dr. Gilda tore at her perfectly mown grass like a petulant child.

As I started the car, I looked into the rearview mirror—Pauline was smiling and took Janice’s hand and held it and Janice smiled and took Dad’s hand and I couldn’t remember being happier. It felt like a true family. I leaned over to kiss Sitting Bull and for a moment his hands turned translucent as he reached for my neck. Then his entire body flickered like the lights during a brownout and he solidified for good and his strong baby hands pulled me close to him and he became a beautiful, black-eyed boy.

It’s simplistic but I often divide fiction writers into two camps: Borges-influenced and Hemingway-influenced. As a realist writer from the south, I usually write what a friend calls truck and gun stories, so it was exciting for me to take a foray in the more magical world with ‘The First Moons of Sitting Bull.’

When I wrote the first draft of the story, I was spending long hours at this house in east Austin where my friends lived. At night we’d sit on the porch in our underwear and shoot cans of Lone Star with a BB gun. In the morning we’d cook migas, brew coffee, and read. It was a motley crew but big-hearted, and I started to think that if you took the best qualities of all of us, you’d have a pretty good basis for a family. I took that idea and extended it through the story and wrote what I hope is an affirmation of ‘family values’ even when that family isn’t exactly ‘traditional.’