by Charlie Racehorse
Nez Perce Indian Reservation, 2000
My boyfriend, Dwayne, lived in the last projects on the highway toward town. It was a nice ’hood, lots of elders lived there, and the men had built a sweat lodge for everyone to use. The projects consist of only three streets of HUD houses laid like a horseshoe and nestled at the foot of a basalt hill at the valley’s edge. The residents had beautified their neighborhood with roses and lilacs that were in bloom, and the scent drifted along the breeze as I pulled up to the house. Once outside the car, the cloying smell of flowers was heavy and sickening as I walked up the driveway. Many smells were terrible to me during the morning sickness phase of pregnancy, and this house was full of stale, greasy, and musty smells that often turned my stomach. Today, I braved the stenches to help clean the house for Dee’s dad.
I have never forgotten the lunch that Dee fixed that day and over the years have regaled friends with the sheer “rezness” of it. He put a scoop of Folger’s coffee into a filter full of used grounds and brewed a secondhand pot. I watched him slather two pieces of bread with USDA butter and cut chunks of USDA cheese for a sandwich. He then put the sandwich inside a brown paper bag, put the greasy affair on the ironing board, and placed the iron over the bag. I kept waiting for the bag to start smoking as he continued to talk. I wanted to see tiny flames born on the edge of grease stains erupt into a fantastic blaze, but that did not happen. Years later, when Dee’s kids were teens, we would make microwave popcorn in brown bags with kernels and butter inside, and I knew there would not be a fire, because of the day we ate ironing board sandwiches.
Dwayne made small talk as the iron toasted the sandwich, and served the coffee with a can of evaporated milk and USDA canned apricots. You would think that lunch would have been awful, but it was not and remains one of my favorite memories of the brief time we were together. I can also recall being in that house late at night, eating USDA apricots out of the can at the kitchen table when I heard the laughter of a child and footsteps pattering down the hall. I looked over at Dee, who said, “That thing has always been here.”
Although the father had not gotten out of bed and rode his wheelchair around for quite a few years, he still demanded that the house be clean. He would ask visitors how it looked as they came through the house to his bedroom, where he spent his days in a hospital bed. Someone had said it looked bad, so he wanted it cleaned up. And here it should be said that there were four older siblings who were the previous caretakers of the father but had all moved on into their adult lives. Dwayne was thirty-one when we met and had been banned from having girlfriends so that he could remain in the home to cook and clean. The father did not want me around and was very displeased with the pregnancy that meant the inevitable loss of his caretaker. He did not grumble about my presence that day, because I was there to clean his house. I know it was a Saturday, the only day of the week my firstborn was with his family, because he was not there.
The 8-track player was in the highest cupboard above the washer and dryer. In the floor plan of that house, the kitchen area was very large for a HUD home, with enough space for a dining table. The laundry closet was flush with the stove and did not take away from the floor space. I was rummaging through the shelves, and Dwayne said to leave that area alone since nobody would see it behind the closet doors. I was finding interesting objects from the ’70s and ’80s on the shelves and had no plans of stopping the treasure hunt. As I stood on top of the dryer, I saw a rectangular slot, like a VHS tape door, shining in the gloom. When I pulled it off the shelf, I saw that the plug was missing, an easy fix. As someone who had grown up in the disco era, I could see that this was an awesome model with the metal casing made to look like wood and chrome pegs for buttons that played and rewound the tapes. At the time, 8-track tapes were still around in the thrift stores, so I took it.
Dwayne reminisced about his memories of the 8-track as we drove back to my apartment in Lewiston. He spun tales of his uncles getting high and playing music on it but recalled much arguing over what music got to be played next. His father used it until the music industry stopped releasing new albums on 8-track, and then put it on the shelf. It was dirty, so I wiped it down and stashed it under my son’s tiny bed that was across the room from mine. I was just a poor college student at the time and could not afford a two-bedroom apartment for us. We were on the second floor of the building and had a deck that faced the street. I often sat on the deck with my friend Christy, and we laughed because you could see inside her apartment window from there.
That night, my son sat up in bed, screaming. I ran over and picked him up. It was a terrible nightmare, and him being four years old, he could not articulate the content. Every night it was the same; my son sat up at 3:00 a.m. and screamed. I picked him up, and we finished the night in my bed, where he had no more nightmares. This continued for several weeks until a light woke me up. Half asleep, I cursed myself for leaving on the light under my son’s bed. Then I popped awake and realized that the dull, green light was not supposed to be under the bed. First, I picked up my son and put him on my bed, and by then, the light had gotten much brighter. I pulled the 8-track out and saw that the light was the top of a head that continued to emerge from the machine at a very slow rate. I picked up the player and took it outside to the deck. By the time I got out the door, half the head was showing, and I saw glowing green hair and two pointy Spock-like ears. It turned around to look at me, and I was startled enough to drop the machine and step away from the ghost.
That was what it wanted so that it could get out. I had a feeling that it should not be able to get free, because of all the nightmares it had given my son, so I mustered the courage to pick it up. When telling this story to friends, they think it would be too scary to pick up an object with a ghost coming out, but to me, the thought of that spirit being around my son was more horrifying. I would face down a dragon, armed only with a toothpick to save my son, so a ghost was not too much of a battle. The full head had emerged, and the specter looked very angry as it began to move its neck in circles as if that would make it come out faster. I extended the player until my arms were straight, and started to spin. It was like me and the pointy-eared bastard were in that Saturday Night Fever scene in the dance studio when Tony and Stephanie held hands and spun. If only the 8-track could have played “More than a Woman” by the Bee Gees at that moment. When the force built up enough to provide momentum to launch the haunted 8-track, I flung it upward.
The 8-track sailed up into the air over the front yard and then began to spin its way downward toward the grass. The ghost had both hands flat on top of the deck and was straining to get itself out before it struck the ground. I watched its belly button clear the 8-track before it hit the grass on a corner and rolled end over end, pieces flying off as it clanked and rattled. The specter’s green light dissipated when the 8-track came to rest near the dumpster, where I was going to put it in the morning. I went back inside, lit a bundle of sage to smoke out the house, and in the safe light of morning, tossed the 8-track into the dumpster. Every night for a month, I lit sage to prevent the spirit from finding us. I asked my grandma about the ghost, and she said it may still be with its beloved 8-track. I imagine it inside the machine, oblivious to the crushing weight on its home as each garbage day added more refuse to the layers that interred it. It hums the tunes of phantom 8-tracks and remembers how that distant HUD living room was arranged back when men smoked weed and plugged tapes in to play vintage music on its machine.
Charlie Racehorse is an enrolled Nez Perce tribal member who resides on an Idaho Indian reservation. Racehorse enjoys camping and traveling, especially to visit rock formations like Craters of the Moon and Bald Rock Dome.