Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A Cappella Zoo, Jersey Devil Press, Waccamaw Journal, FRiGG, Storyglossia, elimae, Apple Valley Review, Underground Voices, the anthology Surreal South, and other many journals. In the last year his stories have earned recognition in several competitions, including a 2012 Pushcart Prize nomination. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is: www.gregorywolos.com.
An Evening with Willie Freeze
The Cubmaster introduces our guest speaker as George White Eagle. I don’t recognize the name, but his face is familiar—it’s a twist of rawhide, eyes hooded to a slit under bruise-purple lids. You’d think they were shut completely, except a gleam sneaks out now and then that reminds me of the husky dog we had when I was a kid. Wolfy slept with his eyes half open, and the dead look in them made me shiver, like he was watching us from some evil world. George White Eagle’s black hair is tugged back into an inch of ponytail. New blue jeans cinch his waist, and his flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, bags at the chest because he hunches.
“Mr. White Eagle is going to tell us some Indian lore and play his flute for us,” the Cubmaster says. His face is ham red, as if his yellow neckerchief is too tight. “So let’s quiet down, kids, okay?”
The scouts are sugared up on soda pop and cupcakes, unconcerned about whatever is happening on stage. They shout and bang folding chairs and play keep away with stolen caps or sneakers. The Cubmaster raises his hand and calls, “Akela.” A ten count passes, and he repeats: “Akela!” The kids sag to the tiled floor in front of the cafeteria stage as if their bones have dissolved. Danny and I have been sitting for five minutes—sugar is not part of my nephew’s diet. He rocks slowly, careful to stay on a black tile. He’s fixed his attention on a heel mark on the white tile in front of him. The other kids keep their distance. Danny attends this school too, but he’s in special classes. He doesn’t meet eyes.
With all the kids and dads on the floor, the Cubmaster leads a recitation of their oath. Only Danny and I and Mr. White Eagle abstain.The cub scout follows Akela.
The cub scout helps the pack go.
The pack helps the cub scout grow.
The cub scout gives good will.
After the oath, the chattering starts again. The adults don’t help—two dads near me discuss creosote buildup in chimneys while one of their boys, his cheeks smudgy with chocolate, chokes his freckled pal.
My sister Tara thinks scouting is a good idea for her son. Her boss at the Walmart made it all the way to Eagle. As I see it, Danny will never be management material. Tara calls his autism “mild Asperger’s.” He’s not a head banger yet—Tara doesn’t need to hide his red curls under a helmet—but doctors warn that it’s a possibility down the road.
Often at pack meetings a father will sidle over during refreshments, usually dragging his son, who’ll be smirking around at his friends. As Danny presses against me, swaying to his own rhythm, the dad will say, “How’s the boy—how ya doin’, son?” Danny won’t answer. Maybe he rocks harder. Maybe he makes a keening sound. To fill the awkward moment, I ask my default question: “So who’s this Akela, anyway?” The dad will smile without answering. “We’ll see you later,” he’ll nod, and shift away, while his son zips off like a released fish.
Tonight, I touch my nephew’s shoulder, and he flinches. I think I hear him humming, and I slide my hand from his shoulder to his back, but I don’t feel the purr I expect— only the ridge of his spine and the ladder of his ribs. The sound comes from the stage: Mr. White Eagle is chanting. The hubbub in the room subsides until everyone except my sister’s son is staring at Mr. White Eagle.
“Respect,” he whispers. His purple lids are squeezed shut, as if we’re something he doesn’t want to see. “My people use a special, holy word: Blah-dee-blah.” The syllables melt together. “It is a tradition that passes from fathers to sons. Say it with me: Blah-dee-blah.” We try. We watch each other’s lips. “Blah-dee-blah” Mr. White Eagle repeats, and we catch on. “Blah-dee-blah.” Our chorus echoes through us, as if we’re in church. Danny’s mouth is shut, and he’s still staring at the heel mark.
“It is with respect we treat our elders, our parents, our guests, each other,” Mr. White Eagle says. The Cubmaster bows. These are the values we hope to instill in our boys. Several dads nod, too. I’m still trying to figure out where I know George White Eagle from.
Respect hasn’t been part of the formula with a lot of our Pack’s guests: the young veteran of the Iraq war lost the kids to giggle fits when he couldn’t keep from swearing and quit his speech in the middle; the professional football player who’d never made it off the Oakland Raiders taxi squad only took questions. He said “yes” or “no” to a few, then stationed himself at a table where he signed autographs for two dollars each. After twenty minutes he stood and asked, “Who do I see about my fifty dollars?”
But Mr. White Eagle commands the kids’ attention. He blows three long, sad notes into his wooden flute. We hear wide open plains and forests full of wildlife. “These are mourning songs,” Mr. White Eagle tells us. “Songs of loss. Songs of death. Loss is part of the great circle of life, boys. Life begins with creation. Sex is creation. The mating of creatures. Of your mother and father. We have respect for sex—Blah-de-Blah.” Our “Blah-de-Blah” is automatic, but “sex” has some fathers frowning. The Cubmaster’s got a glazed look; his ears and neck are crimson.
“I’m going to tell you a story about respect.” Mr. White Eagle speaks in a slow, measured beat, with his head still and his eyes closed like a blind man’s. “It’s an important story. It’s about my people, the Creek. And America.” I expect something about the world on the back of a big turtle, about brave warriors.
“Not too long ago, I was driving on a long stretch of Interstate 10,” he begins, “just into Arizona from New Mexico, on my way to visit some people in Ohio. My car was borrowed from a friend in Bakersfield. The highway stretched far and wide in front of me, with great mountains in the distance. I was smoking— a cigarette—something you shouldn’t do, boys. But when my people smoke, we’re mourning our losses.” Several adult heads bob, most likely the smokers. “It was a bright afternoon. No one else was on the road. Then, in my rearview mirror I saw a car, a state trooper, closing in quickly, and I said a prayer of welcoming. The trooper’s lights started flashing, and I said another prayer to speed him safely to whatever emergency called him. When he pulled up beside me, he looked at me. I nodded at him through my open window, and when I smiled, my cigarette fell out of my mouth. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his mirrored glasses, but I saw his lips curl with hatred. He pointed to the side of the road, and I pulled over.”
Mr. White Eagle has been speaking in a prayerful monotone. From time to time there’s a glint from between his shut lids, as if there are jewels hidden behind them. He continues his story: he’s asked for his license and for the registration of the vehicle his Bakersfield friend apparently failed to renew; he’s ordered to wait with his hands on the hood of the car while the trooper searches it; finally, he’s handed citations for littering (the fallen cigarette) and the lapsed registration, and the trooper races off, lights still flashing.
“Do you see?” Mr. White Eagle asks the boys and their dads. “Shame—it sucks the warmth from the sun and the sparkle from the lakes; it steals the sweet scent from the pines. Do you see? It’s this—” and he presents his profile: his hatchet nose, his high cheekbones and crag of a brow, the stump of the pony tail he waggled between his thumb and forefinger. There’s a hush. Then Mr. White Eagle turns toward us and opens his eyes fully wide for the first time, and we gasp. His eyes have no whites—they’re silvery irises set in absolute black—eyes that belonged only in nightmares. And I remember where I’d seen Mr. White Eagle before.
He’s nearly whispering now. “What that officer showed was the ugliest thing in the world: prejudice. Against me. Against my people, for nothing more than a ponytail, and for skin a few shades too dark.” He doesn’t mention his eyes. He doesn’t have to. “No respect. Blah-dee-blah.”
I’d seen him about a year ago, at the first and only AA meeting I’d ever attended. That’s when Tara and my now ex-girlfriend, Janie, got together and “intervened,” as they called it. For Tara the few joints a week I smoked, the six pack or so that helped quench my dry mouth and round off my buzz, made me a doubtful risk around her son. “You’ve got to be a better role model for him,” she said, knowing how much I depended on his company.
Janie’s reason for wanting me sober was more complicated; it was another aspect of the situation that forced me to move out of the rented bungalow we shared, the one on the river bank where there used to be an amusement park almost a hundred years ago. I’ve seen old photographs of a midway and a carrousel, and a ferris wheel at night all lit up and reflected in the black river. I can match up the shoreline to my fishing spots. I liked to tell Janie when we were in bed that that the wind rustling the leaves outside our window was the ghosts of happy people laughing. I moved out because Janie was pregnant—not by me, though I wish that would have been possible. Janie had the best one-time job I’d ever heard of—she was a surrogate. The fertilized egg of a rich woman had been implanted in her womb; she didn’t know who she was bearing the baby for, only that she was to be paid a small fortune when the kid was born—exactly how much it wasn’t my business to know yet, she said. She also received a monthly sum to eat properly, and a nurse visited once a week to check on the progress of her pregnancy.
Janie is beautiful and ambitious—she has a college degree, and when she was picked to be a surrogate, you’d have thought she won the lottery and bags of gold would soon be dropped off at our door. “You can’t stay here,” she told me. “They think I’m single. I signed something. You’ll have to get an apartment, and I’ll visit you there. And if I am going to visit, you’ll have to change your habits. There’ll be no smoking or drinking around this baby. He’s going to be my down-payment on life.”
I should have noticed that she said “my down-payment” and not “our down-payment.” But I promised both Janie and Tara I’d go to an AA meeting, and I quit smoking and drinking. When Janie started swelling, I talked to the baby in her belly, which she let slip was a boy. Janie would sneak over to my tidy little apartment every weekend, at first, but she visited less and less frequently the more and more pregnant she got. She stopped letting me touch her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t horny any more—she said she was “superstitious” about my fingers and tongue so close to “the portal,” which would be the rich child she was carrying’s access to the world. Sometimes I thought Janie was afraid I would contaminate the unborn kid with my ignorance—as if she had just enough class for him, but I’d never be in the same league.
When her nine months were nearly up—it was just after the night of that one and only AA meeting where I saw Mr. White Eagle— I suggested that we could deliver the kid ourselves, then take off with him and start our own family somewhere far away—a tropical island or a village in the Brazilian rain forest. I thought it was a funny idea to have to kidnap something inside of you. I never saw her again after that night. I don’t know where or on which day she had the baby, and when I returned to the bungalow on the site of the old amusement park, there wasn’t a scrap to indicate she’d ever lived there, let alone a note.
But while I waited in the dim fluorescence of the Methodist church’s meeting room for that AA meeting to begin, I’d thought I was opening a new chapter on Janie’s and my life, not closing the final one. Maybe two dozen folks, mostly men, sat in three rows of folding chairs. Despite the ban on tobacco, the room reeked from clothing steeped in smoke. The people in charge were welcoming, but there wasn’t much chit-chat. Everyone was too intent on publically nursing a private woe. I thought I’d be required to share my story, and I decided I’d tell the assembly about the testicular cancer that left me single-balled and sterile. I’d reveal that I’d never be able to father a child of my own, and that the heart-wrenching disappointment had driven me to anesthetize my sorrows in drugs and drink. The truth is, I’d never had cancer, just a sperm count approaching zero—I’d been tested periodically because I’d grown up in a tract house my folks bought that was built on a nuclear waste dumping ground. That situation involved some mismanaged lawsuits, and if anyone in my family reaped a penny from it, I never knew. But a cancer story would draw more sympathy than a lawsuit, I concluded. I imagined the eyes of these hardened substance abusers filling with tears at my tale of woe.
Tara and I don’t talk about it, but she grew up over the same nuclear waste I did, and maybe her irradiated eggs caused Danny’s problems. Her husband left after the weight of Danny’s turning out to be the kind of kid he is cracked marital ice that was already thin. Tara and Tim didn’t have it in themselves to deal with the situation as a team, which is why I’m scooched up next to my nephew at this scout meeting while Mr. White Eagle has resumed sounding melancholy notes on his flute. When I look at him I can’t believe I didn’t recognize him immediately from the Methodist church basement.
He sat in the first row, and when he popped up to tell about his tribulations, he made no effort to dim the effect of his frightful eyes: they were like dimes floating in black ink.
“I have been a conman and a terrible human being,” he began. His tale was set “in another city” where he had custody of a little girl, a toddler “not really my daughter.” To make his very long story short, somehow he managed to scam the congregation of a church into believing that this child entrusted to his care was dying of “something like leukemia.” He’d thrown himself on the mercy of the big-hearted congregants. “The good people organized a fundraiser,” he told us, and netted a “blessed” profit in the thousands from the gullible church folk before skipping town.
“I have paid my debt for that and other offences,” he said, by which he meant he did prison time, “and as a confirmation of that payment I inked my eyes.” I shivered. I hadn’t known it was possible to tattoo your eyeballs. “These eyes are my public admission of the midnight thoughts that always lurk inside. They warn everyone I meet, ‘Trust me if you dare.’ Being seen as I am is part of my daily battle.”
Anonymous no longer, here he is, “George White Eagle,” toodling his flute and yammering about Blah-dee-blah to a pack of Cub Scouts for the sake, I assume, of fifty dollars. How, I wonder, had the scout leaders found him? How had Mr. White Eagle advertised himself?
I’m fidgety, and at a loss as to what to do with my knowledge. Is there a statute of limitations on anonymity? What if Mr. White Eagle’s got a bigger scam in mind than just that fifty? “You okay?” I ask Danny, mostly to calm myself down, and my nephew doesn’t respond, but the father next to me shushes me and gives me a look like I’ve just violated Blah-dee-blah. I raise an eyebrow at the shusher and cock my head toward Mr. White Eagle, but the dad misses the signal. His plump son’s mouth hangs open as if the nonsense Mr. White Eagle is feeding him is better than a cream-filled donut.
What I should do is get up and take my information about Mr. White Eagle to the Cubmaster. He stands at the back of the room, smiling at the stage; but if I leave Danny, I’m afraid he’ll start howling, like he did when I left him on a movie line with a nice old lady so I could get the wallet I’d left in the car.
Mr. White Eagle has stopped playing and addresses us again. His silver and black eyes gleam. There’s a beat in the pit of my stomach like a tom-tom.
“Blah-dee-blah,” Mr. White Eagle intones.
“Blah-dee-blah,” almost everyone replies. Danny makes his own sound.
“Boys,” our guest says, “you make my heart glow. Your ways, the ways of scouting, are the ways of my people. And there are two things we must value as much as Blah-dee-blah: Truth and Vigilance.”
Heads nod, though I’m sure few of the boys know what “vigilance” means. This is the real deal, dads are telling themselves, this is why we signed our boys up for scouting. Not to tie knots. Not to carve race cars out of blocks of pine. Not to earn badges for taking out the trash. But to grab hold of those old virtues, Truth and Vigilance. Virtue, I think, and that’s when I decide that it’s up to me to unmask Mr. White Eagle. I’m panting, and the hand I rest on Danny’s knee is damp.
“And so,” our guest continues, “I offer you myself as a lesson in Truth and Vigilance.” He bows deeply. I brace myself—there’s the kind of hush that Danny often fills with a wail. But his breathing is regular, and for a moment I understand the relief of fitting in. Who would it hurt to let the whole thing slide? But then Mr. White Eagle smiles—for the first time this evening—and the way his face twists beneath those eyes hits me like a blow to my manhood. I’m being disrespected—no Blah-dee-blah.
I remember the first father-son Cub Scout project Danny and I undertook. Tara had dropped Danny off on a Saturday morning at the bungalow I’d re-occupied after Janie’s desertion. He sat at my kitchen table with a milk mustache while I whittled away at a Pinewood Derby car with a steak knife, the closest thing I owned to a tool. The magic marker for Danny to color the raw wood had dried up, so I gave him a Bic pen, and he slashed stripes along one side of the car, again and again and again, hundreds of them, then said, “TV,” and I said, “Okay.” We brought the car to Derby night, where other scouts displayed glossy, aerodynamic racers they seemed to be handling for the first time. Their dads swapped details about weight distribution and wheel bases, decals and metallic paint. Compared to the others, our car looked like it had been gnawed into shape by squirrels. I caught one father looking at it and muttering to another with a shake of his head, “You’d have thought . . .” The other dad shook his head too, staring at our scarred chunk of wood. The first dad repeated, knowing I was in earshot, “You’d have just thought.” I turned to my nephew, who clutched our car to his chest like it was a gold ingot. “Who the heck is Akela, Danny?” I demanded. “Why can’t anybody tell me that?”
So I have no choice. Mr. White Eagle must be exposed. But I’m still waiting for a sign that the moment is right when he beats me to his own unmasking.
“Truth,” he says. “The truth is, I am not who you think. There is more to George White Eagle than meets the eye. I was baptized George DiBello, but I have gone by many other names. I have been William Smith. In prison they called me Willie Freeze.” His words seem to echo from a pit that’s opened beneath us. The blood has drained from the Cubmaster’s face. “Truth: I was not born a Creek Indian. I am of Italian and Greek descent.” He grins, and his eyes flash. “And now you think I have deceived you. That’s good—you’re being vigilant. There are those who will tell you lies, boys—you will meet such people as you journey through life.”
Confusion reigns—dads look to the Cubmaster and to each other for some kind of reassurance, but there’s none to be had, and as the boys feel their fathers’ grips loosen, their eyes round with fear. It’s frightening and exhilarating at the same time. It’s a feeling I wish I could get credit for creating.
“But even now I have fooled you,” Mr. Whoever says. He waggles a finger. “Truth and Vigilance— I became a Creek in prison. My cellmate was Creek, and after an intimate ceremony, we became blood brothers. He assured me I have full tribal rights. Then I had my eyes inked—I gave up their whites. And now, the blackness is a symbol. As I look out at you, my darkness is behind me. So, learn this lesson, just as I learned the lessons of my adopted people, the Creek—don’t trust what you see. Don’t cast judgments until you know the whole Truth. That trooper who pulled me over? He was wrong about who he thought I was—but he was also right, do you see? But in the biggest way of all, Blah-dee-blah, he was wrong.”
Silence. There’s too much to digest to understand it all. But the Cubscout oath prevails: “The cub scout shows good will.” A unified opinion settles like a golden cloud on Mr. Dibello-Smith-White Eagle’s audience: The subject was Truth. No one has been deceived. Good people chose this speaker. We will all sleep well tonight.
“Thank you, boys, fathers, Cubmaster.” Our guest is reluctant to leave the stage. I’m waiting for one more “Blah-dee-blah” when I feel Danny seething next to me. He’s rocking on his haunches, forward and back. His lips part.
“Boo,” Danny says, the sound a burst bubble that only I hear, because everyone else, all the dads and their kids, have begun to clap—louder and louder, applause that grows bolder as it justifies itself. Danny tilts his head back, and his jaws seem to unhinge. “Boo!” he bleats. “Boo, Boo, Boo!”
“Shh, quiet!” the dad behind me growls, and “Hey” and “Quiet” and “Shh” erupt around us. “Get him out!” another dad nearby hisses, because Danny won’t shut up—“Boo-boo-boo-boo-boo—” he rattles like a machine gun. Outrage swells, and in a second I’m on my feet, and I pull Danny up, too. He’s looking at the floor, and he stumbles stiffly after me as I lead him out the emergency exit that takes us into the parking lot and the night. “Boo-boo-boo-boo-boo,” he’s muttering. I haven’t once told him to knock it off. Behind us I hear the Cubmaster’s enthusiastic voice, muffled, then more applause. Did he just thank the speaker—had he apologized for my nephew and me? I take Danny into the darkness, onto the playing field stretching beyond the parking lot, walking him almost all the way to the trees at the far end. It’s a cool evening, and it feels good to move. After a while Danny stops booing.
“Look at the stars,” I say, catching my breath. I drape my arm over his slight shoulders. He doesn’t say a word, but he lifts his eyes. “There’s the Big Dipper,” I say, “and the Milky Way.” I haven’t really found them, but I know they’re up there somewhere. Danny’s staring up— at the stars or the spaces between them. I plan to stay out on the field until the parking lot empties. Then I feel Danny freeze—he senses before I do that we’ve been followed across the field.
“The Seven Sisters,” a voice whispers. It belongs to the man I first saw at AA. He points at the heavens as he circles around us until he blocks our way. “The Creek tell a story about them.” His back is to the trees. There’s an odor from him like incense. He lowers his gaze and I can feel its blackness spreading over us, thicker than the night. “You booed me,” he says, addressing me, not Danny. “Do I know you?”
The truth is, maybe I did boo him. Maybe Danny got the idea from me. I don’t say anything for a few seconds. Up close he’s not very tall, almost a head shorter than I am. His grin is tight, hiding his teeth. “We’re just tired,” I say. “It was a long night.”
“There’s something wrong with your boy,” he says matter-of-factly. There’s something wrong with your eyes, I want to say, but hold my tongue.
“He’s my sister’s kid.” The moment I say it, I feel bad. “I can’t have my own,” I add, but it’s too late. I have never before in my life hit another human being, but I’m feeling the instinct for it. My arm tingles and my hand closes into a fist. The man holds his flute like a club, as if it’s heavier than anyone would think, and I assess how much it might hurt to block a swing with my forearm. Then I ask him, “Who’s Akela? You should be able to tell me that.”
“Akela? It’s another name for the Great Spirit. Shawnee, I think.”
“Wrong,” I say. “It’s Hindi. It’s Indian-Indian, not Native American. From Kipling’s Jungle Book. Akela is the lone wolf—the lone wolf who leads the pack.” A lot of truths can be found on the Internet.
“I’m a hypnotherapist. And a homeopathic doctor,” he says. “Maybe there’s something I can do for the boy. For you, too.” I twitch as he reaches into his jeans pocket, but he pulls out a card. I relax my hand to accept it. “Give me a call. We can work something out. No charge for session one.” He looks at Danny, whose gaze has fallen from the starry sky to the turf. “Blah-dee-Blah,” the Creek adoptee says. He salutes us with his instrument and turns toward the trees. I see now that there’s a path through them to a lit street not more than fifty yards beyond, and he’s striding toward it. “Boo,” he throws back over his shoulder, followed by a laugh that turns into a smoker’s wheeze.
By now my sister will be wondering where we are. I might have to tell her we’re done with scouting, and I’m trying to think of how to break the news. Maybe I don’t have to say anything; maybe on Tuesday nights Danny and I could just do something else, like bowling or a movie. What we won’t do yet is visit Dr. DiBello—that’s the name on his card. The parking lot looks empty now, but I no longer care. The school’s big classroom windows are bright yellow, and we can see the late-shift custodians moving around. I palm Danny’s back and guide him forward.
“Akela” I say.
“Boo,” my nephew says, his eyes on the night-blue turf he kicks at with each step.
“ The central event in my story 'An Evening with Willie Freeze'—a presentation to a group of Cub Scouts and their befuddled parents by an admittedly fraudulent Native American—is a fairly unvarnished account of a meeting I attended with my wife and children about fifteen years ago. As I developed the narrative into fictional form, the themes and characters seemed to fit naturally with some ideas I’d been exploring in a set of linked stories I’d been working on, Svidragaylov’s Dream: a Web of Stories. I decided to make that relationship explicit. Willie Freeze first appears in Dead White Male Body, and the shadow of the narrator’s surrogate girlfriend falls heavily on three other stories. With the publication of 'An Evening with Willie Freeze' in The Baltimore Review, all twelve stories in the collection have now found homes. This story was a pleasure to write. It evokes powerful memories for my son and daughter, who learned an early lesson in the tendency of some adults to accommodate obvious duplicity instead of challenging it. ”