Death Whiteman

24 Hours in America’s Poorest County


Whiteclay is an unincorporated community standing at the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. Only about twenty persons live here, almost all of them working in one of the four liquor stores or one of the two groceries that face each other along the main street.

The place is spread over the course of half a mile, composed of a dozen sheds, warehouses and deserted buildings. A few houses are scattered around, derelict and buried under overgrown weeds.

I’m in the parking lot of the Arrowhead Foods convenience store where people from the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation come to purchase broasted chicken and first necessity items.

“We don’t have to pay no taxes in Nebraska, that’s why we buy everything there, see,” a lady in a green sweater says. “It’s cheaper, we save a little money. It’s good for us.”

On the other side of the road, the awning of a seemingly abandoned shop provides shelter to a couple of vagrants lying on the ground. There is a yellow NO LOITERING handwritten sign in the window. The vagrants sometimes yell things in Lakota, the Sioux language spoken by the local Natives. “It’À,” they shout.

“That means to die,” the green sweater lady says. “They’re coming for the beer. Alcohol used to be prohibited on the reservation so they took the habit to get their booze here instead. People say this is a bad place, a shame for Nebraska and Indians.”

“Is it what it is? A bad place?” I ask.

“I don’t care. It’s closer to Pine Ridge than the Chadron Walmart. And people will drink anyway, so it’s best to come here. Support the businesses. It’s a service they provide, see. Cathy at the post office, she works here since a long time. My family, we know her since — I don’t even remember. People need the alcohol. So, you know.”

On the other side of the street, a bum cries “It’À” again.

I enter the grocery where I buy a bottle of water and a potato chips pack. The owner greets me and takes my money with a nod.

“It’À,” the man repeats. To die. I’m dying. We die. Death, over and over and over. “It’À.”

I lean on my car and start eating my chips in the parking lot. Price signs for 72s and Marlboro cigarettes are stapled to the back wall of the store. A scrap yard stretches toward the crop fields past barbwire fences, with an old truck trailer and piled up Pontiacs rusting in the sun. I can hear a dog barking further down the street.

A group of three young Indian guys come up with Jack Daniel’s bottles in their hands. One of them waves at me.

“Do you have ten dollars, man?”

“What for?” I ask.

“We got our government checks today but can’t cash in until tomorrow. We’re almost out of gas.”

“There’s no gas station here,” I say.

“The garage can sell us some. Come on, man.”

“Where is your car?”

The man hints at a black flatbed Chevy parked near the neighboring pawnshop. He looks at me with a smile and spreads his arms wide open.

I follow him and his friends to their vehicle. He picks an empty plastic can from behind the driver’s seat and shows it to me.

“I ain’t lying to you, man. Come with me to the garage if you want. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

I agree to help them and we all silently cross the road. Drunk men are sitting on the ground against the pink wall of a bar, gulping beers or sleeping on torn up comforters, heads covered with rags to protect them from the heat.

“Where are you guys from?” I ask the group.

“The rez. Everyone here comes from the rez. Whiteclay is where we blow our cash. It’s like our mall.”

“Do you come often?”

“When the aids cut. Booze is more expensive past the state line so we need to get here if we want to have fun.”

We enter the run-down garage across the street. Tires are piled up inside. A man is waiting at the counter, oil stains on his face, not saying anything until one of the boys gives him the five gallon jug they just got from their car.

The Indian turns to me and says “Ten bucks only”. I give the garage owner ten $1 notes after what he goes filling the container.

“See? I wasn’t fucking with you.”

“Will you all go back to Pine Ridge in that truck?”

“Sure, man.”

“With all you’ve drank?”

“We’re used to it. I drive carefully,” he says, winking at me and raising his scotch bottle to his mouth.

The mechanic comes back and hands him the filled plastic can. I can smell the gas fumes coming out of it as we leave the garage.

“Thanks, man,” the Indian tells me. “I said I’d make it up to you and I will.”

He scours his jeans pockets and hands me a small Ziploc bag full of a greenish powder.

“This is the shit,” he says.

I look at the bag. I look at the man.

“Peyote powder. Mescaline. You can seriously trip out with hardly half an ounce of it. Really good shit.”

I keep quiet.

“Come on. Take it. It’s my way to thank you.”

I laugh and grab the bag. We shake hands.

“My name’s Michael, by the way. I was thinking of hanging out a little. You want to join? I’ll show you around.”

I follow the man as his two friends stay near the Chevy to talk to a wrinkled old biker. We walk past another seedy bar where beggars are waiting for their next cup of spirits.

There is trash everywhere I look. Plastic bags, empty Bud Light cans strewn over the weeds and bushes, metal parts, cardboard sheets, aluminum wrappings and folded papers — litter all along the roadside, in the mud and in the pothole puddles, in the brown water and the dirty dust.

A Pepsi sign is illuminated in front of a liquor store named D&S Pioneer Service. Michael enters the shop and comes back a few minutes later with a bag of crushed ice.

“I got to take a piss,” he says, motioning to a side alley.

A scrawny guy stumbles along a mural painted on the nearby chapel building. The mural depicts beautiful green pastures and western-like buildings with red and blue false fronts like the ones crumbling on the street. Three tipis and a pioneer chariot are drawn in the background, with a white horse galloping under a yellow dawn sky. A bald eagle embraces the scene of an Indian helping a fallen white man standing up from the ground. The words UNITED WE STAND are outlined in purple capital letters.

We pass by a crowd of older men and women who holler at us, clustered in the shade. Stray dogs approach us snarling at the end of the alley but run away after we throw them rocks.

Michael relieves himself against a tree stump. When he’s done, he sits on a cinder block, looking at the fields.

“My sister loved sunflowers when she was little. She always brought tons of them in the house.”

He takes a sip of Jack Daniel’s and passes the bottle over. I take a sip too and feel the alcohol burning my throat.

“She was fourteen when she killed herself.”

I don’t find any words to say.

“I knew she had been trying for a while. I never even talked her out of it. I thought it was just for attention. Fuck, every kid I knew had tried at least once.”

“To kill themselves?”

“It’s like an epidemic. When one does it, you can be sure ten others will follow. I also tried a couple of times when I was a teen. We all fucked with drugs or cut our wrists back then. Some went too far and died. Some survived and tried again later.”

“You attempted suicide.”

“I was alone with my little brother Cody and he was playing with a toy bulldozer. My mother was high on meth somewhere in the reservation. My father was long dead. I was smoking a blunt and it just went naturally, you know. I sliced my veins and woke up the next day with blood everywhere on me. That’s when Cody was placed in foster care.”

The sun begins to set. A drunk man lumbers and falls down, passing out in front of the village’s only restaurant.

“My sister, she mostly did pills. Tylenol, painkillers, anything. I thought it was just for attention. You can’t die from Tylenol overdose, right? Fuck.”

He stares into space.

“She eventually found my mother’s Oxy stash. I don’t even know if she was serious about it. She didn’t even leave a note.”

“What was her name?”

“Amanda. Her name was Amanda.”

He finishes his scotch bottle and throws it in the weeds.

“She’s probably better where she is anyway. Growing up here, it’s the worst, man. The worst. We’re all alone in the world.”

“It looks like it.”

“The elder ones tried to prevent addictions by prohibiting alcohol on the rez but it wasn’t working much. When liquor stores opened here, people went running like motherfuckers to be the first at the doors, I swear! Grandpas walking from Pine Ridge to get booze, it was some crazy shit to see. You can’t stop an alcoholic from drinking just by telling him not to. The whites knew they would make tons of money opening bars here.”

We stay on our cinder blocks for a while, watching vagrants fighting over beer cans, jammed in groups of five or six, dozing off and leaning over each other — piled up bodies, arms over eyes to block the evening lights, sweaty skins and smelly clothes, backpacks full of the food they’ll bring back home when they’ll have sobered up.

“Do you want to try the Peyote now?” Michael asks.

I think of my car left unlocked in the grocery’s parking. I think of the drive I have to take tomorrow.

“How long does it take to kick in?”

“If you eat an ounce, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“Eat?”

“You can swallow it with water.”

“How much time will the effects last?”

“An hour. Five hours. It depends.”

We both chuckle.

“Will you take some too?” I ask.

“Me? I have something else. You’ll see,” he replies.

I smile as I open the Ziploc bag. I pour a spoonful of the green powder in my hand and put it on my tongue. The taste is bitter and strong and I have to drink half of my bottle of water to make it fade. I cough a little. I think of my laptop in the trunk of my car.

“Let’s go,” Michael says. “We have to find a quieter place.”

We leave the side alley and go back on the main street. The night is already falling and the temperature has dropped significantly.

Michael’s two Indian friends are still talking with the biker from earlier, sitting near the area’s only mailbox. Michael invites me to get in his pickup truck, which reeks of wet dog and rotten food.

He starts the engine and I notice the gas tank needle is almost at the full mark.

“I thought you were out of gas?”

The young man laughs as he heads North into the road.

“Yeah. I lied,” he says. “We use gas to get high on the fumes. Sometimes we mix it with sugar and we drink it. It’s a cheap buzz.”

I grin cheerfully, looking straight ahead. The sky takes orange hues over the plains. We drive until the community’s limit where a traditional tipi has been erected near a shack covered in anti-alcohol messages. A wooden sign has been sprayed with several red X.

“Each X is for a traffic death. People drink and drive a lot.”

I try not to care about the empty vodka bottle on the floor.

“Roy’s Place is already packed with drunkies,” Michael says, pointing at an abandoned hardware depot. “We’ll have to go back in town instead.”

He steers towards a blue warehouse to make a U-turn. A graffiti says DEATH WHITEMAN on the blue corrugated wall.

“One of the Oglala tribe members wrote that in 2013 after the protests. The elders were pissed hard.”

“The protests.”

“Against beer deliveries. The council just wanted to block beer from being delivered to the stores so that no one could get wasted. That was a fucking stupid move but everything was peaceful, you know, until one driver hit a boy and it all went to shit.”

“Did the beer get delivered in the end?”

“Police even helped unloading the pallet boards from the trucks.”

The Chevy roars as we swerve in the middle of the road. I watch DEATH WHITEMAN getting smaller and smaller in the mirror.

The truck’s cabin is hot and I roll down the window to feel the rushing air on my face.

We turn right on Jacobs Street, a dirt trail littered with debris and junk left by inebriated beggars. A man shuffles in front of us, mumbling and spitting until Michael honks his horn to warn him of our presence.

Another graffiti reads Legalize Alcohol On Da Rez in nice cursive red letters. Broken car parts are dispersed into the muddy earth. We slowly roll past bunches of sunflowers in an intersecting alley.

“This one seems good,” the Indian says, showing a boarded up vacant house and parking in its backyard.

We go inside the crumbling building through a hole in the red brick wall, entering what was once a kitchen. People are sleeping in here, curled up in strange positions on the naked floor.

We decide to settle near an open window at the side of the house, lying on two busted mattresses placed in a corner of the room.

“Are you feeling the Peyote kicking yet?”

“I’m sweating like a motherfucker,” I say.

My hands are numb and I cannot seem to look up without my eyes hurting, but I’m otherwise good. I think of my apartment in New York and I’m oddly happy of being here, in this decaying shithole of a place, rather than sitting at my desk in my tiny one bedroom.

“You’re jittery,” Michael says.

I stare at my hand, with my fingers twitching and trembling.

“You’re on, man. It’s started.”

I try to close my eyes because my head hurts like a migraine, but it doesn’t help so I keep them open. I’m nauseous. I feel sick and dizzy, my stomach upset by the drug and the Jack Daniel’s.

“You’re shivering. Here. Take this,” the Indian Man says, handing me a grimy blanket that I wrap around me in slow-motion.

I gasp for air and get up on my feet to throw up in a plastic bag. I throw up more until it’s just bile and mucus, and I try to close my eyes again but I can’t and the lights blind me so much that I have to bury my head into the blanket to forget about them.

Indian Man opens his gasoline can and inhales on it, his nose inside the bottle and his black hair diffracted by the fumes.

I throw up more until it’s just mucus and bile, and I try to close my eyes again but I can’t and the lights blind me so much that I have to bury my head into the blanket to forget about them.

My neck is tense and my chest crushed, short breath and fast heartbeat yo, lightweightness and chills along my spine, ha-ha I think in my mind, HA-HA engraved in capital letters in my mind as the room seems suddenly way smaller than it was when we came in yesterday, tomorrow, I have a long drive tomorrow, I think, laid on my mattress, alone, nice and light, nice and bright, the price is right my friend, ha-ha, with teasing tongues spurting from the doorframe and void spreading around me.

My eyes are shut but I can still see the crafts and the art and the night patterns above the roof, and DIVIDED WE FALL seen somewhere I’m not sure of, with the hoos! and the haas! of burned people outside, DIVIDED WE FALL through the walls because, granted, horses are fucking tall but they’re still far, they’re still far, uh-oh, lampshades glowing near and making the ladies blush when their dresses are ripped, with the hoos! and the haas! from the walkers behind the bricks and over the land.

“Tezí mayázan,” I say (I have a stomach ache).

I feel the grains of sand I touch without touching, and the flowers leafing on my knee, what? and the smell of a 737 CFM56–7B turbofan 10–61233–11 CSD oil cooler assembly, me, looking by the empty window while the cars red trails blow kisses to Indian Man, standing up in the pooling gas with blood spilling from his left nostril, me in this house! while everything blossoms up and the sun flows across my head and DIVIDED WE FALL with our mouths flowering wide wildly willingly into bursts of blue flames going back to the beginning where the soft and the warm await silently in the dim shadow of a dark and wild beast that says ha-ha in my head and throughout the dead voices of dead girls below the flooded soil where grow the seeds of green flowering cactuses making me! low and downward and itchy but not afraid anymore clearly not afraid in the soothing flowering darkness of the end of times where a DEATH WHITEMAN shouts it’À, and it’À, and it’À again.

Now it be just blackest as it ever was to.

“It’À,” I cry.

When I wake up in the morning — have I ever slept? — Michael is gone and a lady in a green sweater is peeing or masturbating in the house’s bathroom. The stench of my own vomit fills the heavy air. The window is boarded up with a large piece of plywood nailed into the wall. There is only one mattress in the room. Everyone has left — were there ever people in here?

I walk towards the exit and find myself stumbling in the scrubs, lurching back to the Arrowhead Foods convenience store.

Michael’s pickup truck is not parked near the thrift shop anymore. I think I see the name Amanda carved in a wooden fence but I’m not sure of it because my contact lenses have dried up and my eyes have trouble focusing.

My car is still there.

My bags and my laptop are still in the trunk.

There is still trash everywhere I look, but everyone is gone.

I enter the grocery where I buy three bottles of water and a potato chips pack. The employee is not the same as yesterday. He wishes me a good day as I leave the place.

I drink the three bottles of water in a few seconds. I eat the potato chips in silence, listening to the cracking of the crumbs between my teeth. The sun is already blistering hot.

I program my GPS and get in the driver’s seat. I stay here a moment, eyes closed, still and quiet, before I start the car and drive away.


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