Today at the New Mexico/Arizona border, I stopped at a Navajo “Trading Post” on the side of the interstate. They had advertisements all along the highway, faded billboards with archaic fonts that say things like “Indian Made Arts and Crafts!” – “Indian blankets only 9.99!” – and inevitably one that says “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” with sun peeled paint to show that there is nothing white people need to fear.
The guy at the door wore coveralls and a trucker hat. He looked like he just smoked about 5000 cigarettes and worked in the sun his whole life. He had deep wrinkles all over his face, and was missing many of his front teeth. I parked my truck in the dirt lot and walked up. He said, “My wife will be here to open up in a minute.” I was surprised by the fact that he even spoke. He looked like he hasn’t talked in decades, the wrinkles so carved in his face.
The woman who came to open up the store was a middle aged lady who acted like a grandma, slow and meditative. It felt comfortable to be in her presence. She wore an amorphous floral shirt made of cheap fabric, with indistinguishable colors. I said hi, and she looked at me briefly and then looked away. It took her a long time to find the right key to open the shop door.
The shop was old and dusty. White florescent lights shone on particle board shelves. There were Navajo pottery, sand paintings, toys, jewelry, and a small grocery section. Everything seemed out of place, like they haven’t been moved for decades. Or maybe I was the one who was out of place. There was a thin layer of dust on everything. All the postcards were yellow around the corners.
My favorite thing there was the skull of an animal hanging on the wall – maybe a long horn cow, maybe a horned goat (I’m not good at identifying animal skulls) – studded in turquoise. The entire skull was blue with hundreds of roughly cut turquoise. I looked at it for a long time.I went over to the jewelry counter to look at the necklaces, hoping to find a gift for mother’s day. They had a lot of sterling silver necklaces, cheaply priced, and crafted in a rustic but artful way. I really liked their style – it reminded me of the kind of paintings I would make. I picked out a strangely shaped elongated silver pendant and asked the lady what it was.
“That’s a tomahawk,” she said. She was terse, and lacked any of the affectionate nosiness that a grandma-like lady usually had for someone like me. I felt as if I was intruding upon her, though I was the only customer in the shop.
“What does it mean?” I said.
“It was used in war by Indians. A long time ago.” she said.
I examined the pendant again, and was able to trace the rough outline of a hatchet. At the handle of the hatchet was one small turquoise, very blue. It looked just like the ones that were on the animal skull.
“It’s very pretty,” I said.
“Indians also used it to take the skin off of people,” she said without any expression.
“But that was a very, very long time ago.”
I put the pendant back in its case.A family walked in, with their small boy, about 8 years old. They were so quiet, that I didn’t even notice them until they placed their groceries on the counter next to me. Two bags of sun flower seeds, a bottle of water, a sandwich, some chips. The boy picked out a bag of toy soldiers, and carefully placed it on the counter next to the food items.
“Let me ring them up,” the lady said to me.
She went to the register and charged them for the stuff. The boy stared shyly at his bag of toy soldiers on the counter. He had these big brown eyes that were clear and quiet. His parents took their bagged groceries and headed toward the door. The boy hesitated for a moment, as if unsure of what to do. His mother beckoned him, and he carefully grabbed the bag with both hands and walked out. He looked at me before walking away, his face betraying no emotion. I didn’t even have time to smile before he turned his head away. For some reason that made me incredibly sad. What is he going to do with that many toy soldiers? There must have been a hundred of them in that bag.
The lady returned to me, and stood there without saying anything. I asked her to take out several other silver pendants. I ended up choosing a road runner, a lanky figurine of a man (she explained, vaguely, that he is a ritual figurine who protects people), a buffalo, and a round pendant with pearl inlay in some strange symbol. Each of these pendants had a turquoise on it. I decided to forgo the tomahawk. It just didn’t feel right to get such a thing for a mother’s day present.
She rung me up, and it came to about 55 dollars. I handed her a credit card.
She swiped the card several times, on an old machine with yellowed plastic. It didn’t work. She picked up the landline phone and dialed a number, and then hung up. She then called out to the man in the trucker hat. “Our credit card machine is broken again, and the phone line is not working either,” she said to him. He said he would try to go down to the “office” and ask them what’s going on. I felt like I traveled back in time to some bygone era – I thought about telegraphs. And water meters. And beehive coals. And automatic self-playing pianos. It was like I was in a Garcia Marquez novel.She turned to me. Instead of explaining anything, she simply handed me back my card in slow motion.
I took out my wallet and took out all the cash I had. Then I laid down the bills on the glass counter. 54 dollars. “That’s all the cash I have,” I said.
She took the bills, smoothed out each one, then stacked them together.
“Okay,” she said. She sounded unhappy – but unhappy in general. Not just because I was a dollar short.
I was expecting her to put all the necklaces in a bag and give them to me. But instead, she took out a can of silver cleaner from behind the counter and proceeded to clean each pendant with a cloth. She did this without saying anything to me, as if it was completely expected. I felt really bad. I fidgeted and pretended to look at more stuff.
It took her a very long time to clean all the necklaces. I thought about my 14 hour work clock running out, and how I was going to have to skip lunch later so I could make it to California.
When I finally got back into my truck, with four shiny silver pendants, I was relieved. In comparison to the trading post, my truck felt like a modern science museum. I had my Yamaha guitar, GPS, MAC computer, and other things that reminded me that I was still in modern day America.I pulled out of the dirt lot and got back on the interstate, feeling haunted.
I listened to “Kaw-Liga” by Hank Williams on repeat for a solid half an hour. He mentions a “Tomihawk” in the song.
I wished that I had gotten the Tomahawk pendant.
But I really don’t think I can go back to another “Trading Post.”
~ Kitty Liang
Kitty Liang is a solo over the road truck driver. She works for Schneider National. Kitty got her Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from University of California at Davis, and is working on her first novel while driving. She is also a huge Ameripolitan music fan. You can read her trucking blog at truckerkitty.blogspot.com.
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.