Chief White Bird of Porterville Junction
The first bar was an old roadside tavern called the Halfway Inn. The place was a generation or two removed from its glory days, with peeling paint on the exterior and a boarded-up side window. Even the parking lot, with its few rusted pickup trucks, was growing over with weeds. Still, the neon sign out front flickered insistently that the Halfway Inn was open, and that the burgers were thick and famous.
I stepped through the saloon style doors and, though the early evening light outside had been weak, my eyes had to adjust to the darkness. The bar had only a few patrons and none of them were the Chief. The air was damp and heavy with smoke, and the few figures inside turned to inspect me. What do we have here? Not a Chilton Creek native, an out-of-towner for sure. Thinning hair. No beard. Wide-rimmed glasses. White collar. By the time I walked over to the bar, I was old news.
The bartender, an elderly woman with strands of white hair flailing from a haphazard bun, wordlessly asked what I wanted.
“Miller,” I said, and when she didn’t move, I added: “High Life.”
“Can or bottle?”
From Chilton Creek, it was another four hours to Willoughby, which is where I had a business meeting the next day. I told my wife that I left a night early because I wanted to break up the drive—partly true—but really I wanted to stop in Chilton Creek to see if I could spot him. Chief White Bird.
I’d only made it a quarter of the way through my High Life when the saloon door swung open and a short, squat figure occupied the doorframe. By the light of a neon lottery sign I could see it was a middle-aged woman wearing a puffy winter coat, her red round face scanning the bar and settling on the corner table, where a man in a green mesh hat stood up slowly and adjusted his belt. As she waited at the door for her companion, the woman’s gaze turned to me. She flashed me a curious grin. Before I could smile back, they were gone.
I tossed a dollar on the bar and stood up, leaving most of my beer untouched. The Chief wasn’t there. There were three other bars in this town. Maybe I’d have better luck at one of them.
I heard a rumor from an old high school friend that Chief White Bird of Porterville Junction was now living in Chilton Creek, a quaintish though rundown former mining town about two and half hours from where I lived. Another former classmate had told my friend that he’d been passing through and stopped into a place on the side of the road. There, he’d seen the Chief huddled over a pint up at the bar. My old friend had called me, he said, because he’d remembered how close the Chief and I had been all those years ago, and wasn’t that in my neck of the woods? Yes, I told him, right down Route Seven. I'd driven through Chilton Creek on my way to other towns, but it wasn't the sort of place you made a point of visiting. Not as charming as some of the better-kept upstate towns in the area, Chilton Creek featured a couple of roadside greasy spoons for the weekend motorcycle tourists and one or two watering holes I imagined only locals frequented. As far as I could tell, the only reason one would live in Chilton Creek was if you were born there and never quite made it out, or if you were deliberately hiding from the world.
It had been about eighteen years since I last saw Chief White Bird. We’d had a chicken wing dinner, and the Chief had had one too many beers at the restaurant, so I drove his Ford Taurus back to his place and then walked the three miles to my house. Before I left, he thanked me over and over again, shaking my hand and marveling at what a fine young man I’d become. He insisted I borrow his copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut’s a magician, he repeated. See what he does with the unthinkable. That was about two weeks before the start of my senior year at Buckman Academy, where the Chief was the freshman English teacher, assistant varsity soccer coach, and sophomore boys’ dorm master. Thinking back on it, I guess it was an odd thing to have to drive your tipsy teacher home, but it didn’t seem so at the time.
On the first day of school, though, the Chief was absent. Nobody could tell me where he was. That afternoon, I was called into the headmaster’s office for the only time of my high school career. He wanted to tell me personally about the Chief, because he knew I was fond of him. I asked him, is he sick? Some kind of family emergency? The headmaster just leveled his gaze on me and shook his head. He didn’t give me any details about why the Chief had left, only that he wouldn’t be coming back. I was probably the fifth or sixth of such meetings, and his eyes reflected weariness more than sympathy. The scripted quality of his words and the nervous caress of his fingers on a ballpoint pen told me: this will be the last we will discuss of the matter.
I remember moving through that day, the rest of that week, in a state of mind somewhere between confusion and sadness. I wanted to mourn for my friend, my mentor; but after all, he wasn’t dead. And if he wasn’t dead, why could he never return? At seventeen, I was lucky enough to have never lost anyone close to me, other than a couple of distant grandparents whom I’d only ever seen once a year. This was something profound, I sensed, but I didn’t know how to let myself process it. I wanted to feel the loss soak into me, so after school I’d drive around the endless cul-de-sacs of my town smoking bowls, finally getting so high I’d have to pull into the nearest parking lot and sit, the grainy classic rock on the radio entering my head from all angles. I thought the weed would evince some kind of emotional revelation, but it only made me feel distant and somewhat paranoid. I couldn’t fix on anything meaningful. All I kept thinking was: well, then, where the hell are you?
I filled up my car at a gas station in the center of Chilton Creek, listening to the rhythmic click of the pump and watching the streetlights pop to life as the evening took over. The families I’d seen walking through town earlier were gradually replaced with the night crowd – the swing-shifters heading to work, the barflies shuffling back and forth with weary eyes. A young couple in hooded sweatshirts cut through the gas station parking lot, holding onto each other as they walked. When they passed by my car, the boy flashed me a fierce, inquisitive glance. In the distance, a growling motor shifted gears.
My phone vibrated in my pocket: a call from my wife. She didn’t know that I was there in Chilton Creek to look for the Chief. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her—she would have been supportive—but something stopped me from explaining myself. I pictured her face when I told her the story. The truth was, I had sort of turned my back on the Chief, and I was ashamed of it. Guilt can last a long time, if you let it.
Rather than answer, I waited for it to stop ringing, then checked the digital map. Another bar, just down the street.
Chief White Bird of Porterville Junction wasn't really a Chief. He was Tom Fitzsimmons, a living legend at Buckman Academy prep school in Ohio. As far as I know, he had 100% Irish blood in him. But every year, on a certain day in November, he'd put on his Shawnee ceremonial headdress and leathers and visit classrooms in the lower school. It was a Buckman Academy tradition dating back many years, probably to the mid-70s, when the Chief first arrived as a twenty-something teacher. Though the performance was part of the school’s Cultural Awareness program, the whole thing was, admittedly, rather culturally insensitive. The Chief meant to honor the Shawnee people, but his presentation was a bit reductive. Not many people might have cared so much back in the 70s, but by the time I was in grade school, it was generally seen as a lovable gaffe, a harmless relic of a less-enlightened era. When I was a sophomore in the early 90s, tolerance for the dated display had worn thin, and copies of a senior thesis essay entitled “Blame It on the Rain Dance: The Noble Savage and the Perpetuation of Native Stereotypes” circulated around the school. That was the last year Chief White Bird, in his full regalia, would haunt the halls of Buckman Academy.
I still remember the day Chief White Bird visited my class. You could hear him coming from down the hall, the rattling of his beaded vest and the tikka-tikka of his hand drum. He was already dancing and singing when he entered the room, a shuffle, two leaning steps forward, one step back. He was so tall that it seemed his headdress, bobbing up and down, could almost brush against the ceiling of the little classroom. And that headdress would weave its way down the aisles of desks, ching-ching-chinging heavily with all those bells and gray and white and brown bird feathers, and when it passed by your desk, you could catch a glimpse, right in the middle of all that, of a well-lined tanned face, squinty eyes below thick winter brows, mouth pursed in concentration. And from that ancient face, every few seconds or so, would issue a howling moan, a baying old sound like a barn door, and you’d think that if anything had the power to pull rain from the heavens it was this old voice and this old face. And by God, when it rained that afternoon or that evening or three days later, you felt good inside because you knew just who had made it happen.
The great Chief would then tell of his village and his tribe, who lived in Porterville Junction long before your ancestors moved in and long before it was called Porterville Junction, back when its name was Nepi, the Algonquin word for water, and how his people were friendly with the French and traded furs and other things with them in the years before the Revolution. He’d tell you about a time when there was no Baskin Robbins or Nintendo or Buckman Academy, when young kids like you didn’t go to school at all, instead spending their days learning to farm squash and hunt. “Imagine that,” he’d say in his low voice, like a proclamation or a decree, sweeping his arms out wide in front of him. And you would imagine it, feeling like you’d been given permission: all those trees and animals, all those people with no shoes on their feet, breathing in a different world.
The first rumors about his sudden departure told of an epic argument between the Chief and the headmaster that had spilled over into a physical altercation. This was believable mostly because both men had famous tempers, and it was true that they’d never really seen eye-to-eye. The Chief was a wild educator, an inspirer of students who screamed dirty phrases in Latin from the sidelines of soccer games (“He who waits for balls has none!”), and who’d spent his entire adult life in the rarified air of culturally-sequestered preparatory education. The headmaster was essentially a fundraiser in a forest green bowtie, a man who visited classrooms once or twice a semester to correct stuttering students on their grammar, and who made no attempt to conceal his hard-on for turning our Midwest school into a clone of those East Coast, old money, ivy school mills.
As those rumors circulated, a decidedly anti-headmaster sentiment arose among those of us who had been disciples of the Chief. We’d never liked the headmaster, few people at Buckman did, but this gave us an excuse to hate him as an outlet for our emotions. On the second Monday of school, when the rest of the school community wore the traditional Buckman Green blazer, we wore black, and we stood up from our pews and walked out during the headmaster’s morning address. The gesture was a clumsy one, as nobody, least of all us, was clear on what exactly we were protesting. As we sat in detention the next morning, I thought about the defeated expression in the headmaster’s face on that first day of school, the bags under his eyes, as he told me “Mr. Fitzsimmons” wouldn’t be coming back. I wondered how this man, so rigid and ineffectual, could have been the cause of the Chief’s midnight exodus. It seemed to me that he was as helpless as anybody else. The rumors, I decided, could not be true.
The second bar was more of a scene than the first, but even still, over half the tables were empty. The air was gray with smoke, though less so than the Halfway Inn, probably in accordance with state law. I navigated my way through a cluster of people celebrating a birthday, pushing through flannelled torsos as the happy birthday song devolved into a string of good-natured insults aimed at the celebrant. A meaty hand, meant for someone else, pawed at my shoulder.
Leaning an elbow on the bar, I scanned the crowd. The Chief, in my memory, had been tall and wiry, his skin somehow always tan, even in the gloom of Ohio winter. But by then he would have been in his mid-seventies, surely stooped by age. I cringed inwardly at the thought of what nearly two decades would have done to him; he was always fond of his booze. Within a minute or so, I’d taken stock of everyone in the room. No sign of the Chief.
The bartender was a heavy-set bald man with a red and silver beard. He pointed a finger at me and titled his head.
“Miller High Life, please.”
The bartender shook his head and jerked a thumb at the tap. “No High Life. We have Coors. Light and Banquet Style.”
“Banquet Style. Thanks.”
The beer, foamy and watery, came in a pint glass with a fading cartoon of Wile E. Coyote printed on the side. I sipped it and watched the door, where every few minutes a new patron would appear and join the birthday party, or sit at one of the wooden tables, or make for an open stool at the bar. I listened and observed, aware of my awkwardness, wondering about how and why the Chief might have ended up in a town like this. Was it an escape for him? Or had Buckman been the escape?
In the cramped bathroom, I listened to a voice message from my wife. Brady had been fussy, and it took her an hour to get him to bed. She missed me. She hoped the drive wasn’t too bad, and that I’d pull over if I ever got too tired.
KISS ME was scratched in the mirror, obscuring my face. Still, I could see that my cheeks were flushed and seemed fleshier than usual. The flannel, which I had chosen specifically for my stopover in Chilton Creek because it was the closest thing to rugged I had in my closet, hung loose and stiff over my shoulders. My eyes, magnified by the thick lenses of my glasses, watered from the smoke in the air. A thought popped into my head: a grown child.
The bathroom door opened and the bearded bartender walked in. While I washed my hands at the sink, he used the urinal behind me.
“Passing through?” he said over his shoulder.
“That’s right,” I said, noticing the empty towel dispenser. I shook my hands over the sink. “Actually, I’m looking for an old friend.”
“By the name of?”
“Tom. Tom Fitzsimmons.”
The bartender coughed and zipped, turning to me with a bemused look on his face.
“Try Moonbeam McSwine’s off of Seven.” He chuckled. “Fitzy’s almost always there.”
My wife made fun of me for my private school past. Whenever I told stories from high school, she’d put on a gently mocking scowl. “I hope they gave you binoculars for your dorm rooms,” she’d tease. “It must have been tough to see the little people from up in your ivory towers.”
“We never bothered looking down at you all,” I’d say, but there was a part of me that was always somewhat embarrassed about all of it. I’d gone to an expensive and exclusive private academy for all of my secondary education, been given enormous resources and spoiled with attention and adoration, and was completely oblivious at the time to the luxury of it all. But I guess that’s the thing about privilege: so often it’s enjoyed without any kind of awareness. Now, when I thumb through the pictures in the annual alumni magazine that arrives in the mail, or look at old photos of my graduation (we all wearing khakis with victory cigars poking from shit-eating grins), I marvel at the promise and absurdity of such a place. That day, while shaking endless hands and robotically accepting congratulations, I was taken aside by a wealthy alumnus who told me it was my turn to “take the world by its balls.” Many of my old friends have done just that, if their smiling photos in the alumni magazine can be trusted. CEOs, hedge fund investors. But I haven’t followed the old man’s advice, not in the way he meant. I make enough to support my family, but even as a teenager I knew that I was not motivated by those things. Even if the world did have balls, why must I seize them? Maybe that perspective comes from the knowledge that my son, now two and a half, will never attend such an institution.
I can’t help but wonder at what the Chief must have thought of us, an endless procession of wealthy kids with no world experience, entering and leaving his classroom year after year, decade after decade. We had opinions about everything but didn’t really know about anything. Did he think we were all the same? Was he resentful? If he ever was, I never got that impression.
Moonbeam McSwine’s was a dingy outpost on the fringe of town, a diner and bar belonging more to the woods than the mining town I’d just been in. In the parking lot, I pecked out a quick text to my wife—DRIVE ISN’T TOO BAD, STOPPED IN CHILTON CREEK FOR THE NIGHT. LOVE YOU, SLEEP WELL—and made my way inside.
One half of Moonbeam McSwine’s was a restaurant, with tables and ketchup bottles and diners dipping spoons into their soups under fluorescent ceiling lights. A teenage waitress hustled from one table to the next, a smile plastered on her pale face. The other half, from which a Huey Lewis and The News song emanated, was a dimly lit bar with a few scattered souls occupying the corners. A sign written in sharpie on the threshold warned that nobody under twenty-one would be let in.
As soon as I entered the bar, I noticed him. The Chief, there at the bar, huddled over a pint glass just like my old classmate had said. He wore a button-down denim shirt, and his hair had turned from silver to white. I knew he would look different, but I wasn’t ready for it. He looked old. Shrunken and bent, his face puffier than it used to be, obscuring those wild eyes.
I settled into a barstool two spots down from the Chief, careful not to stare too much. A man emerged from a back room and tossed a coaster onto the bar in front of me.
“What are you drinking?” The man was surprisingly well dressed in a shiny black shirt and slim black slacks. His blonde hair was combed with a part, his face hairless.
I glanced at the tap, then at the bottles and cans lined up on the bar.
“Can of Pabst, please. And another round for him.” I gestured at the Chief, and the bartender poked his eyebrows up.
“Another Black and Tan, Fitz?”
At the sound of his name, the Chief shifted his gaze to the bartender, then me. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy, dragging a bit from what I guessed must have been several rounds. But they still seemed to hold that sharp intelligence. I searched for a hint of recognition in his look, but couldn’t find any. It occurred to me then that I had changed as well, even more than the Chief, probably. Since seventeen, I’d gained forty pounds, lost most of my hair, started wearing glasses. It was no wonder he didn’t recognize me; he’d only ever known me as a kid.
“What the hell, Jerry,” he said to the bartender, forming a slight grin. “But this is my last.”
His voice unnerved me. It used to be sonorous, authoritative. The haunted voice of an ancient mariner. There was a ship! the voice used to bellow. It used to command rain from the sky. Now it was brittle and hoarse, straining to be heard above the music. What did I expect? He was an old man.
Teddy Green was a boarding student from New York City, a quiet Jewish kid with a mind for science and math and an uncertain grin that had a way of putting other students ill at ease. As a left wing midfielder for the soccer team, he was decently skilled on the ball but lacked the physical presence to be effective. Similarly, he was polite in conversation, though you were always left with the impression that he had been humoring you all along. I can’t help but think his east coast composure was lost in translation for us Midwesterners; to us, his need for privacy was prohibitive, his ideas were always left of center, and the Mets poster hanging from his wall felt like an insult. When he withdrew from the common room for the solitude of his dorm room, we reveled in our masturbation jokes. So it is no surprise that when hushed rumors circulated about Teddy’s entanglement in the Chief’s departure, we listened with pricked ears.
The first thing we heard was that Teddy’s parents had threatened a lawsuit. We knew that his dad was, after all, an attorney, and didn’t New Yorkers regularly sue one another to solve their quarrels? This made sense, but why did the Greens want to sue the Chief? This was what we couldn’t figure out. Once, a couple years earlier, an angry parent had threatened to sue over an ankle injury his daughter had received while being thrown into the pond on campus. This was a Buckman tradition of course, but the parent didn’t care. Teddy wasn’t injured, though. In fact, there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with him, and when he was confronted with the rumors about the Chief, he vehemently denied any involvement. Lacking any other evidence, we shrugged our shoulders and believed him.
But when Teddy fell into a deep depression that fall and became even more reserved than normal, the rumors started up again. And when he abruptly transferred to a school in New York, packing up and leaving one evening in December without saying goodbye, the rumors were harder to ignore. And what they were saying was troubling. They were saying that Teddy had come a few days early to school because, as a dorm prefect, he was supposed to welcome new students. They said that the Chief had come into Teddy’s room and offered to help him set up. Then, they said, the Chief made a pass at him.
Those of us who were closest to the Chief said it wasn’t true. Bullshit, we called. He wasn’t gay, and even if he were, he wouldn’t do that. We were insistent. I was. I lost friends over it. Over time, though, my certainty eroded. What if the Chief was gay? Why hadn’t he ever married? There was nothing wrong with that, but was he capable of coming onto a student? A seventeen-year-old under his care? Eventually, rather than face these questions, I stopped thinking of him altogether.
I leaned over and extended my hand to the Chief. Even when I said my first name, I didn’t see the spark of memory in his eyes. He only smiled, thanking me again for the beer.
“Where are you from?” He clutched his Black and Tan with both hands.
Porterville Junction, I wanted to say. But the words stuck in my throat. “Earlham,” I said instead. “About two and half hours southwest.”
“Nice town,” the Chief said.
“Oh, I’m kind of from all over. Been here for about twenty years.”
Eighteen, a part of me wanted to correct him. This same part of me wanted to put a hand on his shoulder and say, It’s me, Chief. Don’t you remember? Why did you have to leave? More than anything, I wanted to let him know that I was sorry.
Instead, we sipped our beers in silence, staring at the row of empty cans and bottles on display above the bar.
One night in the spring semester of my sophomore year in college, I received a phone call to my dorm room. A crackling, shouting voice came through the line, and I had to tilt the receiver away from my ear. It was the Chief. He said he’d heard through the grapevine that I was going to this college, and that he’d called the school and been bounced around until somebody was finally able to give him my room number. He was thinking about the old days, he said, and thought it would be neat to reconnect. I remember checking the clock on my desk: past midnight. We talked about some old memories and I brought him up to speed on what I was studying. The Chief was drunk. He was slurring his words and when there was a silence in the conversation, he’d laugh too loud at nothing. He wanted to tell me that he was passing through town that weekend, and could we reconnect? Of course, I told him, nodding into the receiver. Wouldn’t it be nice to reconnect, he asked again, and again I nodded silently. It would do him good to see me, he said. His voice came through thinly.
We made plans to meet that Friday night at a pub on the edge of campus. When Friday came, I never made the half-mile walk through campus to the pub. I spent the night sitting in a friend’s dorm room, drinking wine from a jug and watching rerun episodes of Cheers. The Chief never called again.
The Chief finished his Black and Tan with one last gulp, then turned on his stool and stood up uneasily. Steadying himself with a hand on the bar, he called goodbye to Jerry the bartender and thanked me again. With that, he walked past me, teetering a bit and favoring one leg over the other, moving from the bar to the better-lit waiting area of the diner, then out the door into the night. I stood up and followed him out.
I expected to see the Chief fumbling to unlock one of the few cars in the parking lot, but it was empty of people. I turned and looked down the road; there he was, trudging on the shoulder into the deepening blackness of the winding country road.
“Wait!” I called out.
The Chief stopped and swiveled at the sound of my voice.
I jogged up the road to him. “You’re walking home?”
It was dark, but I sensed wariness in his expression. “I’m right around the corner here,” he said. “Half a mile at the most.”
I shook my head. “I want to give you a ride home. You’ve had too much to drink.”
“I’m quite all right, thank you.” He turned back to the road, but I reached out a hand and stopped him.
“Please, Chief. Let me give you a ride home.”
We contemplated one another there on the side of the road. Night sounds grew from the black woods surrounding us. The front door of Moonbeam McSwine’s groaned open and clapped shut with an echo.
Without speaking, we walked back to my car and climbed inside.
The night that I stood the Chief up, I had the best intentions. I really did plan to meet him, which never really mattered. But when I left my dorm room that night and walked out into the cool air, I was struck by what seemed like a heavy certainty. It was embarrassment, anger, shame, and it seemed so real to me then. What struck me was that we can be good, genuinely good, for so long, but that ultimately it doesn’t matter. Because when we slip, we slip in plain view of everyone, and it’s impossible to get back up in front of such an audience.
The ride lasted only a few minutes. I tried to drive slowly, to have some kind of nostalgic victory; here I was again, driving the Chief home after he’d had one too many. But before I knew it, the Chief said, “I’m here,” and I pulled to a stop, my headlights illuminating an iron gate in front of a modest house on the side of the road. I searched for words but found none. I’d only focused on finding him, not what I’d say once I did.
“Chief,” I said, but he raised a hand to stop me. He was smiling, his eyes glistening.
“Thank you for the beer,” he said. “And for the ride home.”
I watched the Chief make his way, with effort, toward his front gate, my headlights causing his bent frame to cast a long shadow onto the road in front of him. He seemed to pause there in the gravelly shoulder of the road. Without warning, he stumbled to his side, caught himself, then pitched forward. Again, he steadied himself, only to shift once more to his left. I unclicked my seatbelt, ready to run to his side, catch him from falling. But instead, I just watched him there, his old body listing back and forth, his shadow stretching impossibly long.
It was hard to tell if the Chief had gotten back up from his slip almost twenty years ago. Was he happy? I didn’t know – how could I ever tell? He seemed entranced. Intoxicated on more than Black and Tans. The Chief shuffled there on the edge of the road, the only Irish Shawnee in Chilton Creek. Two steps forward, one step back. Eyes on the sky. He danced through the open gate and onto the walk that lead to his door. Tikka-tikka went the drums. The Chief was remarkably lithe. He was the tallest man on earth. A magician. Two steps forward, one step back, and didn’t it feel good after all those years?
Doug Cornett is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He was awarded first prize in the 2015/16 William Van Dyke Short Story Contest from Ruminate Magazine, and his work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Permafrost Magazine, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere.