Rez Stories: Bumper Pool

09/09/2008 By Shawn Burns

I tell people that I spent my "formative years" living on a reservation along the St. Lawrence River, where Ontario, Quebec, and New York meet in an insane patchwork of jurisdictions.

This is not a lie.

But it’s not quite the truth either. I didn’t spend time there, as one might spend money, exchanging it for something desired or necessary. I didn’t really give over my time at all.

I let my time wither, desiccate, grow infected.

I didn’t like to be there. We moved to the rez when I was ten, into an old family home that had a swamp (complete with frogs) where an in-ground pool used to be. The house was on an island: one bridge went to a smelly little industrial town in Ontario; the other went to upstate New York and the American side of the border-straddling reservation.

I had family on the rez. I had friends in Ontario, where I went to school. But summertime, and weekends, meant no free rides into town. So no getting into mild urban trouble with the blue collar kids I went to school with. No going to the mall to pretend we weren’t there to be noticed by the girls. No wandering around downtown and slipping into the arcade. No going to the library or bookstore to let Tolkien show me what the real world was like.

What was a boy to do? Develop habits, that’s what. Form. Be formed.

I had one friend on the rez. His name was Chris. He died stupidly a few years ago, long after we had stopped being friends. When he was a kid he lived stupidly, and I lived stupidly right alongside him. At eleven years old I was wandering around the island with him, looking for bottles to break, or to return to the gas station for the deposit so that we could accumulate enough recycling wealth to buy a can of Skoal.

Do you know what Skoal is? Chewing tobacco, folks. I didn’t quite have a can ring in the back pocket of my jeans, but it was a near thing.

We’d buy a can and sit around his house dipping Skoal while his mom drank and ignored us. His youngest brother cut his toes off in the lawn mower one day. Life went on. We dipped, and dared each other to piss on the electric fence across the road. We broke bottles and set things on fire and played bumper pool at the place down the road.

I didn’t have a can ring because I had several pairs of jeans; Chris had a can ring.

I learned how to play pool from my father and my grandfather, on the rez, in basements and in bars when I was a kid. I learned how to play bumper pool with a can of Skoal in my back pocket, being stupid with a stupid friend on weekends and during the summer when I couldn’t get a ride into town.

Is there a memoir here? If so the next chapter begins, "When I was twelve I quit dipping and took up smoking. For the ladies."