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A Postcard From Chee-Ka--Go

He was about 12, a dark-skinned Indian boy with bright, intelligent eyes. "You must be very rich," he said. "Tell me about Chicago."



There was one road through the forest. You could follow it on the map, a single blue line threading its way north with no crossroads and only an occasional tiny town which, when you reached it, turned out to be a gas station, a general store, and a few Indian houses. Otherwise there was nothing to see almost the entire length of the province, nothing but trees. On either side of the road they rose up in unbroken walls of green. From time to time a logging truck heading south would roar by, loaded with gigantic logs 8, 10, 12 feet thick, but you never saw where these logs were coming from, never saw one space where the trees were not.

The couple from Chicago had been traveling almost two weeks. They had never been this far from home. They had never seen so many trees, so few people. They came to a little town that barely showed up on the road map and stopped outside a row of crude cottages that advertised itself as a motel.

"I need a bed tonight," the woman said. "I need a shower and a toilet that flushes and I want to eat something that wasn't cooked over a fire."

The man nodded. She had been pretty good about the camping, even that night in Montana when the storm had nearly blown their tent away with them in it. But he did not very much like the looks of this motel.

As he expected, when he tried the door to the office it was locked. "There's no one here," he called back to the car, and his wife replied, "Well, look around."

She was determined to spend the night in a regular bed.

First the man banged on the office door. He was a shy man in mid-life who had never learned to speak comfortably to strangers. The idea of poking around this run-down motel looking for someone he did not know had no appeal for him. There was a wooden house painted pink on the same lot. "Try over there," his wife called. "That must be where they live."

He was spared this when a small dark-skinned boy suddenly stepped out from between two of the cabins and said: "You look for the lady, mister?"

"We wanted to ask about a room."

"She went to town," the boy said. The man glanced over his shoulder. The town was less than three city blocks long and had no side streets. It was hemmed in on every side by a solid wall of trees.

"I can show you the room," the boy said. "I am work for the lady."

The man took a closer look at the boy and saw that he was an Indian, at least 12, with bright intelligent eyes. "Is there another town around here?"

"Fifty kilometers." The boy pointed south.

"What about the other way?"

The boy shook his head.

By the looks of things all the cottages were unoccupied if not actually abandoned. But when the boy took him into a unit at the end of the court, the man was surprised to find a clean linoleum-floored room with a working sink, refrigerator, and electric grill. There was a wooden rocking chair, a sunken-in easy chair, and, the man noted with satisfaction, a double bed.

"How much?"

The Indian boy shrugged.

It is necessary now that the man and his wife be given actual names lest there be confusion. John and Mary will do since they were in no way remarkable people, just a couple from Chicago who had lived long enough and successfully enough to afford a summer-long camping trip through Canada. John went back to the car and explained the situation to Mary. "I don't care how much it costs," she said. "I want to sleep in a bed."

They were unpacked and Mary was in the shower when the lady returned from town and knocked on their door. She was a little white woman of over 60 with freshly curled hair; she had been in the beauty parlor. John followed her into her office and signed the register. "They have a beauty parlor here?" he asked, somewhat amused.

"Oh yes," the woman said. "I couldn't live here if they didn't."

"What else do they have? A restaurant?"

Yes, but the restaurant turned out to be a single counter at the gas station where a stout unsmiling Indian woman prepared hamburger sandwiches on plain white bread. After weeks of camping, eating off plates and using someone else's silverware felt almost luxurious. The Indian woman, however, did not respond to their pleasantries. She was surly and contemptuous and made no secret of her dislike of these tourists.

It was still daylight when John and Mary walked back to their room. This far north at this time of year the sun does not set until almost ten. "Can we stay here a few days?" Mary suggested. "I just started my period. We don't know what's ahead of us."

The next morning John spoke to the lady and arranged a price for the remainder of the week. "Is there any place around here where a man could go fishing?" he asked. The lady shook her head. She knew nothing about fishing. Maybe George did.

George turned out to be the Indian boy. John found him in the courtyard talking to Mary. "Listen to this," she said. "He wants to know where Chicago is."

The Indian boy was very talkative and very curious. He had never been to a big city. He attended school somewhere down the road "when the weather was good." This country was very cold in winter, the snow very deep, the daylight lasted only hours. Mostly you watched television, if you could get it, a tiny black-and-white screen so dim the images seemed to be coming from another planet.

When travelers from Chicago identify their home city, they learn to expect certain reactions. The first several days out of the city, people will ask you, "How can you live with all those niggers?" They will not always use the word "nigger," sometimes they will say "colored" or "black" but the meaning is always the same. But when you leave the midwest, and especially when you reach lands where English is not always spoken, the natives will lift an imaginary tommy gun, take aim, and say, "Chicago? Rat, tat, tat!"

The Indian boy knew nothing of gangsters or black people. He was trying hard to imagine a city of concrete and steel and millions of lives. Mary got out the atlas and pointed out first Chicago, then the place where this little town was supposed to be. It wasn't even on her map.

"Someday I would like to see Chicago," the Indian boy said.

"Maybe you wouldn't like it," John told him.

"Oh yes, I would like it. I would like anyplace that was not here."

The Indian boy took John down to the river and showed him where he might fish. First they walked straight through town, and John was able to take a second look at the bare wooden houses and the dusty little stores. At the gas station/restaurant he bought the boy a bottle of soda and several candy bars. The Indian woman behind the counter talked to the boy briefly in another language. "Is she your mother?" John asked when they were back on the street. The boy shook his head but made no attempt to explain.

The road John and Mary had been traveling ran alongside a swift-flowing river. Sometimes you saw it, mostly it was hidden behind the trees, but it was always there. It was a river unlike any John had ever fished before--boiling rapids, foaming ripples, and a current that swept your line back to shore almost as fast as you threw it out. The boy instructed John to cast out by certain rocks and then sat down to watch.

"You must be very rich," he said.

"Rich? No. I don't think anyone would call us rich."

"I would," the boy said. He looked up at the dense trees lining the opposite bank of the river. You could see downstream perhaps a quarter of a mile before it turned, upstream even less. You could see nothing but trees, this angry river, and a patch of cold blue sky above.

That evening while John was cleaning fish in the courtyard he met the owner of the motel, a man so old you knew he was the lady's father. He came right up to where John was working and said: "I see you got some trout."

"Yes." John was very pleased. He had been fishing all his life and these were the first four trout he had ever taken.

"You should be here when the salmon are running. Oh, if you could see that!"

"They come right up the river?"

"Oh, yes. The Indians spear them by the hundreds, but you're not allowed to buy one from an Indian. There's a 500-dollar fine if they catch you doing that."

John did not know whether to believe this or not. "Must get pretty cold up here in winter," he said.

"Oh, not so bad," the old man said. "We hunt up here in the winter. You like to hunt?"

John shook his head.

"Oh, it's great sport. We get bear and deer and elk."

"Not me," John said. "I could never bring myself to butcher one."

"Oh, you get an Indian to do that. Give him a dollar. Let him have the parts you don't want."

The old man drew a deep breath. "Isn't this wonderful air? You won't breathe air like this in Chicago."

"No, you won't," John admitted.

The old man lowered his voice and stepped closer. "Did you know this motel was for sale?"

John silently wondered who would be foolish enough to buy it. Only one other person had checked in for the night, a single man who seemed to be traveling on some kind of blue-collar business.

"You could buy a place like this and you could catch trout every day . . . You could hunt bear and elk. And, do you know, they say you can find gold in the hills."

Suddenly John realized the old man was trying to sell him the motel. For a moment he considered asking the price, but then he looked up and saw that wall of trees on every side, straight, tall, green, and silent.

"Why would you want to sell?" he asked idly.

"Oh, I'm getting old. I should be living in town near a doctor."

When the trout were clean, John grilled them over charcoal and he and Mary ate outdoors. She had been cranky all morning but now she was feeling better. Her periods were like that, short and violent. In a couple more days she would be ready to go. The Indian boy joined them but refused to eat any trout. "Tell me about Chicago," he said, and Mary began to explain such things as the Art Institute and the Hancock Center and the Outer Drive, which she described in such a jumbled way it hardly seemed like anyone, let alone this boy, could make sense of it.

But the boy listened openmouthed. "Chee Ka Go," he said slowly. In his mind's eye he was seeing a great shining city.

The next morning John went fishing alone. The boy was involved in some chore and no longer necessary. If anything the water was racing faster, the trees seemed higher, the sky colder, and now the fish were uncooperative. He cast again and again in all the spots that had worked the day before, but to no avail. Perhaps there had only been one fish per rock, and he had caught them all. It might be a week or more before another fish showed up to take its place.

He began working his way upstream, following a narrow dirt road that had been cut through the forest. It was not a road anyone in his right mind would drive a car down, but there were deep ruts as if from some kind of heavy vehicle. Here and there he was able to squeeze through the underbrush and cast out into the river, but nothing came of it. The swift water simply washed his line back to shore.

About a quarter mile up the dirt road he was stopped by a wooden gate fastened shut with wire. A sign was posted on the gate. Private Property, it said in large black letters. And underneath, in smaller type, were the words:

Trespassers, Please Leave the Name and Address of Your Next of Kin.

John wondered precisely who this notice was intended for, and finally concluded it could only be for himself. He had traveled 1,500 miles only to trespass on trees.

That night the old man tried again to sell the motel. He even mentioned a figure. John tried to imagine himself living in this place, surrounded on all sides by trees and a silence so deep you could almost hear your own pulse.

Then the lady came out into the courtyard and the three of them talked for almost an hour. Mostly the old man talked and John listened. The old man told stories of bears and deer and Indians and moonshiners who made their own law. "Nobody ever bothers you here. We never lock our doors." When he finally tired and went inside, the lady apologized.

"He tries to sell this motel to everyone who stops here. But who would want it? We're stuck. That's what I tell him. Stuck."

When John got back to his cottage he found Mary sitting on the rocker talking to the Indian boy. She was telling him stories about Chicago. In Chicago, she said, there were stores as large as this entire village. In Chicago there were trains that ran on elevated tracks and you could go anywhere you wanted. In Chicago there were restaurants and theaters and movie houses. In Chicago streetlights burned all night.

"Tell him about Uptown," John said.

"What about Uptown?" Mary said.

John smiled wanly. "Just kidding."

The next day they packed their car and continued north. They would return on another road and never pass this way again. Before they left the Indian boy handed Mary a folded sheet of paper with his name and address carefully printed on it. "I want you to send me a postcard," he said. "A postcard from Chicago. Chee Ka Go!"

"I will," she promised. "I really will."

Driving north, John again saw that wall of trees, straight, tall, green, and silent. The sky seemed unmercifully far away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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