Book Club

Excerpt: “War Dances”

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The following story is an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s recent collection of short stories, Blasphemy.


Published by Grove Atlantic Press, Oct. 2012

After the surgeon cut off my father’s right foot — no, half of my father’s right foot — and three toes from the left, I sat with him in the recovery room. It was more like a recovery hallway. There was no privacy, not even a thin curtain. I guessed it made it easier for the nurses to monitor the postsurgical patients, but still, my father was exposed — his decades of poor health and worse decisions were illuminated — on white sheets in a white hallway under white lights.

“Are you okay?” I asked. It was a stupid question. Who could be okay after such a thing? Yesterday, my father had walked into the hospital. Okay, he’d shuffled while balanced on two canes, but that was still called walking. A few hours ago, my father still had both of his feet. Yes, his feet and toes had been black with rot and disease but they’d still been, technically speaking, feet and toes. And, most important, those feet and toes had belonged to my father. But now they were gone, sliced off. Where were they? What did they do with the right foot and the toes from the left foot? Did they throw them in the incinerator? Were their ashes floating over the city?

“Doctor, I’m cold,” my father said.

“Dad, it’s me,” I said.

“I know who are you. You’re my son.” But considering the blankness in my father’s eyes, I assumed he was just guessing at my identity.

“Dad, you’re in the hospital. You just had surgery.”

“I know where I am. I’m cold.”

“Do you want another blanket?” Another stupid question.

Of course, he wanted another blanket. He probably wanted me to build a f—ing campfire or drag in one of those giant propane heaters that NFL football teams used on the sidelines.

I walked down the hallway — the recovery hallway — to the nurses’ station. There were three women nurses, two white and paperwork and regarded me. Her expression was neither compassionate nor callous.

“How can I help you, sir?” she asked.

“I’d like another blanket for my father. He’s cold.”

“I’ll be with you in a moment, sir.”

She looked back down at her paperwork. She made a few notes. Not knowing what else to do, I stood there and waited.

“Sir,” the black nurse said. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

She was irritated. I understood. After all, how many thousands of times had she been asked for an extra blanket? She was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper. And it was never really about an extra blanket, was it? No, when people asked for an extra blanket, they were asking for a time machine. And, yes, she knew she was a health care provider, and she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? I know she didn’t want to be cruel, but she believed there was a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn’t disagree with her but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn’t I?

“My father,” I said. “An extra blanket, please.”

“Fine,” she said, then stood and walked back to a linen closet, grabbed a white blanket, and handed it to me. “If you need anything else—”

I didn’t wait around for the end of her sentence. With the blanket in hand, I walked back to my father. It was a thin blanket, laundered and sterilized a hundred times. In fact, it was too thin. It wasn’t really a blanket. It was more like a large beach towel. Hell, it wasn’t even good enough for that. It was more like the world’s largest coffee filter. Jesus, had health care finally come to this? Everybody was uninsured and unblanketed.

“Dad, I’m back.”

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