I have my winter coat on, as if I am ready to be arrested, but actually it’s because HEAP has run out. They give you an initial grant in November that is not enough, but if you manage to get a shut-off notice before the end of March, they’ll pay it. It’s April Fool’s Day and the gas bill is $252.
Cop, badge number 911, sees me through the faux stained-glass window. I put my hand up. Welfare Fraud Lady has charged me with attempted welfare fraud in the third degree. 911 mildly objects when I move to the back of the long trailer to call to Jacob, “I’m going out. I’ll explain later.”
Jacob is alarmed. I never go out. He runs to me. “Grandmama!”
911 assures the child he will bring me back. How old is he? Cop wants to know. Old enough to stay alone. We don’t need the services of CPS here.
911 is almost to the cop car before he turns to see me still standing on the deck waving my cane. I’ve aged since the last time he came for me: back then I went down fighting.
He puts his arm around me and I lean on him to get down the steep steps; then 911 slides me and my cane down the icy incline, and around Cop car. He opens the door and explains that he doesn’t want my grandson to see me handcuffed. I hold out my arms. My right hand has recently been amputated, the stump still raw and painful. “Flesh-eating bacteria,” I inform the tiny little uniformed man. “They don’t know how I contracted it.”
“I’m supposed to cuff you behind your back.” 911 seems as confused as I am, and I am on oxycodone and morphine. He snaps a cuff on my left wrist; it’s the best he can do. “I know you can get out of that,” he says lamely.
Just days ago, he had been in on the raid of the double-wide next to my trailer and arrested Number One Grandson, Allha Stump, for selling weed. They seized all his money, his marijuana, his hydroponics, and his car. And when Allha wouldn’t narc, they arrested his father, Number One Son, Dusty Stump. And when they came for his mother, Char—who is next in line to be Matriarch of the Erie—and 911 put her in a hammerlock, and threw her on the back of cop car, and tasered her, I stood on my veranda and screamed, “911! You are fucking insane!”
Do you blame the insane? No, you pity them.
I’m going to claim dementia. Mama died of that, looking at a wall in a government-sponsored home. To Mama, every day was April Fool’s Day.
Mama was Matriarch of the Erie.
Now I am.
The Erie sold Manhattan for a few beads. Because we don’t believe anyone can own the Earth. The Erie are the original Indian Givers. We are responsible for Thanks-giving. Giving and receiving are the same thing.
We are the wild (free) Indians, us Erie, anarchists, a matriarchy, known for shamamaism, vision-quests, mystical talents, and doing hallucinatives. Erie possess intense psychic abilities. And a disposition for difficulty with authority.
Erie have no concept of ownership or one person subjugating another. The Erie are in direct contact with God. Each individual is a sovereign nation; we each draw our power from a central Creator. Erie take care of the children, and everything else balances. We don’t label, not even relationships. Us Erie, we just belong to each other.
The white man based the Constitution of the United States Of America on the Six Nations’ government, which considered the Erie to be insane. Because we would not be a nation.
Everyone is our Tribe.
Nations engage in behavior that would be immediately recognizable as psychopathic in an individual. If nations were individuals, they’d be committed as insane. Or they’d get the electric chair, like Grandpa Weed, an Erie, the last man in New York State to be executed. (He was innocent.)
My SSI for the Handicapped grant—I have degenerative joint disease, very painful—is based on what I earned in taxes before I became disabled, mostly tips, and jobs that were “under-the-table,” meaning I paid no taxes. No one could live on what I get a month from SSI.
Time slows as I pass the Nut Bin in the back of cop car. Two hundred years ago, my ancestors squatted on that slanted piece of land, and became first in a long line of descendants to take advantage of a government program. They built the core of the long, long house of the Erie, on speculation they would build a canal.
And they named it Erie.
The Nut Bin on Erie Street is a massive, ad hoc architectural structure, with deep eaves and elaborately carved cornices that has obviously been expanded to suit the needs of the expanding Tribe. Many rooms have been added, and a second story, as well as an attic, that was once actually part of the underground railroad. Improvements such as haphazardly installed stained-glass windows and several chimneys give the Nut Bin the appearance of a surreal dream. It’s my dream.
I added the purple picket fence and the intricate gingerbread trim to the gables. And the gargoyles.
As we round the curve and I lose sight of the Nut Bin, I raise my left hand, the cuffed one, in the How gesture. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
The law took the Nut Bin.
The only thing I took was the fireplace and the landscaping. Little 911 came and put locks on the doors that had none and arrested me for trespassing and attempted assault in the third degree, with a weapon: my cane.
And now I am arrested for welfare fraud. Attempted. In the third degree.
The jail looks like a hemorrhoid smack in the middle of the county seat: it’s attached to the architecturally imposing courthouse centered on Public Square.
“When one out of every hundred Americans is in jail—well, that’s probably just on weekends—none of us is free!” I quote to 911 from the late Kurt Vonnegut, an Erie. “If not for the Erie—If everyone obeyed the law—the economy would fail. You’d be out a job, wouldn’t you?”
911 snaps my mug shot.
I’m processed—fingerprinting takes half the time—then, as promised, 911 returns me to Erie Trailer Park and my single-wide can with the leaking roof. Then he’s off to arrest some illegal Erie immigrants who are supporting their families in Mexico by picking fruit.
Char, tall and lean, long silver hair and the bone structure of an Erie, comes over to bum a cigarette. She’s smoking again. So am I.
We first met at the edge of the Erie Canal. I predicted that Charmaine and Number One Son, Dusty Stump, would meet, and be fucking and fighting the rest of their lives.
Now, many little Stumps later, each with a first name that begins with “All” and ends with “ha,” Charmaine is next in line as Matriarch of the Erie.
We get comfy in the room where I installed the fireplace. Surrounded by a collection of perfectly balanced balls and windows covered with saran wrap and transparent colored beads, we light up cigarettes I rolled with my left hand.
The nicotine, mixed with a little weed and saliva, is a chemical bomb to the brain.
We sit a while blowing smoke-ring signals. We’re listening to Gniles Barkley singing, “Maybe I’m Crazy.”
Char confides that since her Number One Son, Allha Stump, got popped for selling weed—and Dusty, and herself, as well—she’s been on anti-depressants.
Allha may go to prison unless he testifies that she, his Mama, and his Daddy, Dusty, knew he was selling pot. Then, the government will seize their double-wide trailer, and many Stumps will be homeless. Again.
They’ll all have to live with me. I’m the Erie Matriarch.
There is a commotion outside. A car has smashed through the broadside of the red trailer across Erie Drive from the mini-Nut Bin.
How? How do I manage to appear there at once? Bi-location. I open the driver’s side door and kick the elder’s foot from the gas pedal and step on the brake. With my left hand, I pry the Erie elder’s fingers from the wheel.
In the passenger seat is her son, Bobby, an Erie. “That way!” he repeats over and over without gesturing. He stares into the red.
Once Bobby and I watched with several children as a red couch floated by us down the Erie Canal. “Two cops threw that couch into the canal in Lockport,” Bobby said. Bobby knew. Useless information.
My Tribe has developed, from the center of our reptilian brain to our frontal lobes, an additional dimension: extrasensory.
Call it Erie.
Bobby is an Erie idiot savant.
Dusty Stump says, “The government is in business for making paper. There is a secret organization rumored to make time. If the government didn’t make time, there wouldn’t be so much paper.”
Let’s open a free store, I suggest to Char, who is a bitch.
Char still thinks she can change men. I’ve overcome the ego. Char asks, “Where did that ever get you?” She wants reverse-spousal-support from all her ex-husbands.
We never open a Free Store: bring what you don’t need, take what you want. Free.
The eleventh of April, Dusty and Char, Bobby and I take a trip to Volunteeries of America, as I call it, for a $40 refund. Days ago, Char had thrown out all the living room furniture in their double-wide. After Char and Dusty bailed Allha with their tax return, they visited Volunteeries looking for replacement furniture, although I told them: “A couch will come.”
They’d had an absolute brawl over a $40 sofa bed. Was it bronze, as Char saw it. Or pink, as Dusty, who is colorblind, insisted. The male clerk—who is paid, not volunteer—sided with Dusty, then forgot to tag it as sold.
Dusty drives, Char and I sit in back, and Bobby in the passenger seat tells Dusty, “This way,” like he used to tell his mother, before she drove into the broadside of the fireman-red trailer and got involuntarily institutionalized.
The cavernous store seems abandoned, until we discover the male clerk asleep on a red couch. Dusty gets Bobby to grab one end of wooden bunk beds. “That way!’ Bobby says a few times as he backs into the window. “This way!”
Dusty and Bobby get the bunk beds wedged in the entrance doorway, as Char awakens the clerk to argue with him, the do-nothin’ motherfucker.
Volunteerie Lady rushes up. “Men are idiots!” she proffers. She is slim and has wild long hair, as do Char and I. She is Erie. She’s doing Community Service here for shoplifting at Walmart. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “Matt, who insisted that the sofa bed was pink, sold it to someone else. He even carried it out for them! So you have $40 store credit.”
“Just return the money,” I say.
Matt returns from helping Dusty and Bobby with the bunk beds to the curb. He tagged them. Big idiot smile. Beside him, Dusty is holding up a six-foot TV antenna like a spear and he’s a native hunter. “For the kid’s TV!” he announces.
“Idiot!” Char speaks: “In a few months they are going to switch technologies to render antennas useless.”
I found a long tie-die skirt to wear to court for $4.99. At the register, I give the Volenteerie lady my Volenteerie Discount Card to enter my purchase. She says, “You have to spend $5 without tax for a 5 percent discount with the card.”
So I buy a ball for 49 cents.
The antenna and the dismantled bunk beds are tied securely to the top of the car: They are free.
At Walmart, I shoplift developed pictures of the grandchildren, and seeds: pumpkins, snapdragons, and saliva, which looks like a hollyhock and smokes like a weed. Saliva is an hallucinative and it’s legal. Unlike pot. Which is not. I’d rather smoke pot because it makes you creative. But I do believe that everyone should hallucinate at least once to understand the plastic nature of reality.
I sit in the mini-Nut Bin smoking a cigarette laced with saliva, hoping there isn’t a law against it yet, when Welfare Fraud Lady calls to tell me that my court date has been postponed.
Upon hearing her voice, I understand she is an idiot. More man than woman. Obviously she subjugates her own female to have power within a primitive patriarchal society based on domination and competing gods.
Welfare Fraud Lady sounds like a recorded 911, so I say back to her: “The cop who arrested me saw my poverty and my physical handicaps—the roof is leaking on my head right now! Badge number 911 said you should give me a hardship waiver!”
“I’ll talk to my supervisor,” she says.
I’m sitting on the toilet when little Allisha Stump flings open the flimsy bathroom door. “They’re taking Bobby!”
In the garden, lush green and fertile, where tulips and lilacs flourish along with the fruit trees, stands Bobby. Char has one arm, 911 the other. I picture Bobby as a scarecrow. Or Christcrucified.
As I approach, they let go of Bobby so 911 can show me—I’m responsible for him!—the legal paper that says that Bobby’s tin can now belongs to Social Services. “To defer the cost of Bobby’s mother’s nursing home,” explains 911, like I’m an idiot. Or a child.
I look around at all the empty trailers: the Erie Mexicans are gone. They were illegal. The Erie Jetts are being evicted and that’s five trailers, and Bill, across Erie Drive, moved because Bobby’s mother drove through his living room.
“Who is going to pay Slumlord the lot rent?” I ask, looking at all the tender young plants and the children playing.
Social Services will pay for the empty trailer. It belongs to them now.
911 tells Bobby that Adult Protection has services for him and he can be institutionalized with other handicapped people not far from his mother.
Char spits at 911, “You’re insane!”
911 feels intimidated. I know. “So where do you want to go, Bobby? Cause you can’t stay here.”
Bobby stands straight, looks at me. “This way.” He points.
On the day he is discharged, TJ has to be out of Mercy Hospital by noon, an hour longer than a hotel gives you. His brother, Dusty, picks him up, since he’s the only one with a car and a license and insurance. He says he has a license and insurance anyway, although Char says he doesn’t.
Now TJ and Dusty stand in my living room and face each other: Dusty raises his palm toward his brother who suffered a heart attack fucking his wife. “How,” Dusty says.
TJ returns the gesture. “How.”
I think about how thankful I am to Dusty’s girlfriend, for saving TJ’s life. I’ve never met her, but I know she’s an Erie.
Welfare Fraud Lady, henceforth referred to as WFL, rides in from the West in a beige Caddy, so expensive that, if she ran into my 1972 tin can with a veranda, I’d have to pay her damages. Irritating scraping sound of underpinnings meeting the speed bump. No one escapes Erie Park with a muffler.
There is a flash of lightning. An urgent rumble of thunder clouded out by dread. This is the end, I know.
WFL wears a dress. It’s scary. Allaurha and Baby mob her before she even manages to get out of the Caddy. On stork legs and high heels, she makes it through the mud to the front of the car.
“Hey kids! It’s the Welfare Fraud Lady!” I yell. In the distance, many children are headed this way, each with a needful thing that the authorities have been so helpful as to remove from TJ’s trailer. It is free.
Allisha Stump arrives first staggering under the weight of a pentagon-shaped table big as her arm span. “Grandmama, can I keep it?”
Allisha is in contest with me to be badder—and when I was her age, I shot Rockefeller, the Governor of New York, in the ass with a peashooter. He was giving a speech in Public Square. Now Allisha drops the table and shoots WFL in the ass with a mud ball.
WFL talks condescending to the kids mobbing her. Baby gives her a hug and is expecting to be carried. WFL grabs the railing and then gets all excited. She wipes the purple paint from her hand to her dress.
Many pinwheels of different colors and sizes whirl madly in the wind, which is insane. Now the clouds burst with icy rain as WFL approaches me in my rocking chair on the deck. She’s soaked and her bleached hair is wild (free). When she is close enough to make eye contact, she flashes a clipboard and pen like a badge. Allanha, Allenha, Allaugha, and Allibamha race past her and into the inner confines of the downsized Nut Bin.
Allisha hops in place in front of WFL and announces, “Hey Grandmama, it’s some strange lady!”
WFL quickly explains that the Cop, 911, who said I could get a hardship waiver, must be new to the job. “I consulted with my supervisor. There is no such thing as a hardship waiver!”
WFL goes on: “If conditions are as bad as you claim, and you can’t pay back the $10,000, because your roof is leaking and you don’t have enough to eat, and you have flesh-eating disease, my supervisor says Jacob should be removed.”
WFL is unaware that Allaurha is sneaking mints from the purse she swings from her shoulder. WFL is oblivious that a wind chime whirligig, turning in an illusion of eternity from the porch ceiling, has wrapped into her uncivilized hair at the crown.
I watch WFL’s eyes dilate as she reads from a paper attached to her clipboard. “Jacob’s counselor scanned Jacob for abnormalities. He didn’t pass prosociety.”
Jacob, my heart, walks past WFL as if she isn’t there.
“They scan all the children. And he’s abnormal.”
“I am not familiar with prosociety. Does it mean he isn’t compassionate? Is he violent?” I hit myself in the frontal lobes with my stump, like I’m an idiot, as it comes to me that she is using politically-correct to say that Jacob is antisocial. He’s Erie.
The rain lets up for a moment, and I see him join several children, a gang led by Allfalha Stump, who has a rocket device that they are attaching to a spark plug inside the engine of WFL’s Caddy.
It will happen in the future, like an Erie Lake Effect: a long whistling siren leading to a fountain of sparks and a harmless explosion as WFL leaves.
(This will happen after the end of the story.)
As WFL takes an aggressive step forward, the caught lock of hair in the whirligig is pulled from her head; WFL is partially scalped. In pain, she does a war dance, while I beat my palm against my mouth and give a whoop.
I quickly lead the nuisance WFL, followed by a swarm of children, inside the dark hall dotted with pink plastic garbage bags attacked to the ceiling to catch the rain. Her steely blue eyes smudged with makeup take me in like I’m a small furry creature caught in a trap of her snap judgment. “And your hand. Let’s see your hand.”
She means my stump. I give her the finger.
She whirls around. I stop her in the hall to look inside Jacob’s room, which had been an addition. The skylight exposes pelting rain lit by lightning. “Jacob’s roof doesn’t leak,” I say. “So you can’t take him away. Now, Allisha, if you want her…”
Allisha is directing a failed attempt at getting a purple sleeper sofa through the side door. I call to her, “Go tell your dad a couch has come. He’ll help you move it.”
“There’s a chicken,”WFL gasps, pointing at a hen just laying an egg. Coincidence?
The haughty WFL marches down the hall to the dusky cubbyhole where I am invisible when I write on a computer that is as old as WFL. The monitor is lit with a greenish glow in the darkness: the words “Welfare Fraud Lady Is Insane” are on the screen. I feel the shock as WFL reads it, and thunder rumbles. A lightning flash.
The telephone rings.
While I talk to a bill collector for telephone/TV services that I occurred while I was in isolation with flesh-eating bacteria at Mercy hospital, WFL makes Baby a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“What is your name?” I hear WFL coo to Baby.
“That’s a coincidence,” exclaims WFL. Baby interrupts to tell WFL: “You look like my Mama.”
As the storm progresses, I sit in my place of power on the red settee and WFL settles across from me in the pink/bronze recliner. The cat, Erie, attacks anyone sitting in that chair. It is a deformed black kitten, three legs and a fang growing from the bridge of its nose.
“Oh, how cute,” WFL manages as Erie climbs up her bare leg. Erie wants to suckle her earlobe as if she is her Mama. WFL grasps the furry kitten tight in both hands and holds it out at eye level; her expression is pained. “Except, I’m allergic!” Children crowd her. Allaurha leans over her with her mouth full of candy and drools. Baby jumps on her lap, smearing her with jelly and generic kool-aid.
“I’ll do you a favor,” Fraud Lady says to me, trying to regain control of her pen and notepad. “I know Bobby is living here.”
I look outside as the CATS bus pulls alongside WFL’s Caddy and Bobby gets off, his arms full of merchandise. He is unaware of the maelstrom surrounding him as he strides up his porch that is now our staircase.
“I won’t charge you with failure to report his food stamps,” WFL is saying. “But I have to report that Bobby is working under-the-table at Walmart.”
The kids leave WFL to swarm Bobby as he enters loaded down with fertilizer, bread, milk, a carton of toilet paper, and a football.
“You are a maniac!” I fling at the crazy person in a dress. Erie makes a long sucking sound as WFL grabs her by the scruff of the neck, and disconnects her from her earlobe. Delicately, WFL holds Erie out from her and drops her. At once, the cat is clawing onto the top of WFL’s head, where she’s been scalped.
“No one works under-the-table at Walmart!” I cry out.
Bobby shuffles back and forth. “I volunteer. Volunteerie!”
“I can’t pay.” It’s that simple.
“You could do Community Service,” WFL suggests brightly.
I light a hand-rolled cigarette, she looks at me sideways. “You could save money if you didn’t smoke. A pack of cigarettes is up to $10.”
“At the Rez, tobacco and gas are non-taxable, practically free,” I say. “I roll my own. Here, have one.”
WFL sighs, as if embracing a deep longing she’s tried hard to forget. She reaches out her hand and holds the cigarette to her red lips. I light it for her.
WFL gives me a blank look that reminds me of mindless bacteria that slowly rises like yeast to the top of the good ol’ boy system. She’s forced to deny the humanity of those on the bottom—women and children—defining them as lesser beings who are therefore not entitled to positions of power. WFL flicks her ashes into a nearby ashtray. She blows smoke out both snotty nostrils, then takes another long drag on the hand-rolled cigarette laced with saliva.
Suddenly WFL is crying. Tears as thick as mucus run culverts though her powdered foundation. “I built my house!”
“The Erie built the Nut Bin,” I offer. “Would you like some tea? Green tea?”
“Daddy helped me with the plan, an A-frame in the woods. It’s all glass. I could see the deer pass through the yard. I painted one room purple!”
Something inside WFL is born: a psychic Erie effect. The smoke has reached her reptilian brain and is taking her higher. “Foreclosure! Subprime loan!” she cries. “Take the money and raise the interest adjustable rate with the economy influx ration.” She sobs.
“Periodically, I get a standard of living increase in my SSI check that is subtracted from my food stamps,” I soothe her.
“I didn’t know they were bundling the loans and selling them to China!”
“You should have asked a Tibetan!”
“I did everything right!” WFL is surrounded by a purple haze as she collapses into an infantile state; her tongue flicks over her thumb, and I know she wants to suck it. “They took my house! My home!”
“And a Slumlord bought your home,” I guess, “and then rented it for a profit.”
“No. A hunter bought it at auction for the land, just to hunt on it!”
Lightning strikes the TV antenna on the roof at the same moment the electric goes out. Thunder rumbles and sudden hail puts out the fire started by the lightning strike.
Suddenly Dusty Stump is in the middle of the room, and says something shocking. WFL is his girlfriend!
WFL sits bolt upright.
With her long silver hair freed and her wet dress clinging to her body, she does resemble Char. WFL is Dusty’s girlfriend! She points at me with her right-hand finger, and she should be thankful she has one, the bitch. “You’re Dusty Stump’s mother!”
“How,” says Dusty to WFL, holding up one palm, “How is Allelujha?”
And it comes to me as brilliantly as the flash of lightning: I’m a grandmama, again. Coincidence?
“How about that hardship waiver now?” I ask WFL.
WFL is on her feet; she’s pulling at the roots of what remains of her frizzled hair. Like a banshee, she cries out: “She’s dead! Allelujha is dead!”
I suck in air and look at WFL. I know the law won’t like it if we’ve killed another kid.
“Mama!” Dusty shouts, reading my mind—he’s Erie, after all. “WFL can’t have children. She has no womb! Allelujha is her puppy…a Chihuahua…I ran over Allelujha with the Caddy. Accidentally!”
WFL flutters towards the door. Beats against it mindlessly, intent on escaping the mini-Nut Bin.
The rain turns to drizzle. The storm is over.
WFL screeches, “You’re insane! You’re all insane!” She slams the door behind her.
“Yes! Yes, yes. Yes!” I knew then: Welfare Fraud Lady is Erie.