The Yellow Ribbon on the Trunk
You’re driving along a congested freeway. It’s morning. The sun welcomes you to the new day by indiscriminately piercing each of your eyeballs with its beaming rays, like some sadistic bastard holding a mega flashlight to your face while you lie there, ankles and wrists bound to the bed posts. No point in struggling. Just take it in the eye like a man. Some asshole cuts you off. Had it not been for the roar of the V-6 turbocharged engine under the hood of the Mustang that’s now braking heavily in front of you, a sideswipe collision may have made this morning’s commute that much more of a gaping wound fused with lemon juice.Why didn’t you lay on the horn? This sonofabitch obviously deserves an earful of Honda horn for, oh, a good 20 seconds or so. You can’t make out whether the inconsiderate prick of a driver is a man or woman. It doesn’t matter, though, because the reason you decided against honking your little heart out is staring at you, hanging on the back of this fire-red, two-seater Ford with its white racing stripe stretching down the middle. If the car’s finish were blue, the vehicle would look like a used pregnancy test on wheels, declaring that although the condom broke, none of your swimmers got past the goalie.
The jackass continues to break heavily. Their brake lights blink consistently with a metronome-like rhythm, and flashes red like an alarm clock at your bedside – the one you’ve been too busy to set. Instead, you just turn, roll on the other side of the bed and face the other direction so as not to be disturbed by the blinking shadow on the wall nearest the brightly lighted rise-and-shine screamer. But, again, you can’t get yourself to lie on that horn. You’re in the middle lane. It’s neither the fast nor slow lane, but it’s moving better than both. So best to stay in this one, you think. You were late to work yesterday wearing your coffee stained button-up. The boss didn’t care in the least that your shirt looked like a latte-medium Picasso caricature on canvas. You were late, and you were vermin for it. “You’re making this a habit!” he barks, even though you’re not. You’ve been late a total of one time in the two years you’ve been with the company. But it seems this guy is laying into you the same script and tirade he bellows at other employees, whether he’s familiar with their punctuality or not.
Your lane stops moving. The others to your right and left pick up speed. Cars whiz by with a voracity the traffic in your lane refuses to subscribe to. But you get a closer look at that thing that kept you from lying heavily on your horn earlier. You can see all parts of it. It’s the ribbon, just as you thought. The yellow ribbon magnet you’ve seen brandished on innumerable vehicles throughout town, on the road, in parking lots and even on kitchen doors at your neighbor’s house during that fourth annual neighborhood block party when some estranged wife asked you to help her get the macaroni salad. “There’s a lot of it,” she says. “And you look like a macaroni fan.” You hope that’s not a reference to anything.
On the ribbon reads, “Support Our Troops.” Hell yes. You share the prick’s sentiments, even if they can’t drive without making you wet your Huggies from close calls and constant braking. But you agree, nonetheless. Support Our Troops. No question there. But you do have one question. You’re a curious mammal. You have always been, ever since you saw a wrinkled chili on the kitchen counter at age 8. It looked like a deflated strawberry, you remember. But it was thinner; a darker hew of red. Still, it sat on the same counter you’ve seen strawberries set for you at the ready for consumption. So, why not? you thought. It could be a strawberry. If it were a baby strawberry it would be plumper and with less wrinkles, like me; so maybe it’s just an older strawberry. From then on, though, you learned milk was good for two things: cereal and putting out mouth fires whenever a spicy yum-yum burns the senses.
Your inquisitive tick still looms: “What is the derivation behind this ribbon?” you ask aloud. No one is in the car with you to hear your audible ponder or to offer you the luxury of utilizing the HOV lane. Still, you’re confident you know what the yellow ribbon means today in contemporary American society, but you’re not sure where its concept and significance comes from. It’s like Thanksgiving that way. You know what it is now; that the November holiday is about being thankful for all that you have – people and things – but the truth concerning its history and derivation is, often purposefully, shady and well protected.
All of a sudden, the spirit of an Indian pops in through one of your open back windows. It’s a he. Ironic it is that this Indian is here in male form and not female. Women, as it is little known, are the historians and documentarians of most Indian nations. Why a man is there for you now is because that’s basically the image that was fed to you as Mom and Dad watched those shitty John Wayne flicks. Indian women weren’t given much camera time. Even now you see the image of male Indians more than women in the form of cigar shop wooden statues, on the cover of cigarette packs, a mascot on a team’s jersey or muraled on the basketball court floor. If it were a female spirit that popped through your half-cracked window you’d probably not notice that she was an Indian. Only in conversation between each of you would you learn … well, unless she appeared in the form of a porcelain doll, but then she’d be a kid and then you’d just be so fucking confused that you wouldn’t know whether or not this was a hallucination, a dream (maybe you fell asleep behind the wheel? Traffic, after all, is still at a stand still) or the result of a bad taco. Put the meat away, folks. Hallucinations don’t only come in the form of peyote.
The Indian ghost begins with, “I’m not a genie. I’m not here to grant you wishes. I’m not here to get you a new iPod. Yours is shit and the only way you’re going to be able to get a new one is if you save up, get off your lazy ass and buy a new one.”
“You’re nothing like the Indians I see in movies,” you say. “They are more gentle and less obtrusive when they speak their wisdom, and, um, they’re usually alive.”
“I’m not that kind of Indian!” he quickly responds. “And those Indians you see in movies? They’re Italian or Peruvian or some shit like that! They wouldn’t know how to erect a tepee if they had a hot coal on their ass making its way up their rectum!”
A weird silence suspends between you and the ghost. He’s in traditional regalia, but you don’t know that word. You keep calling it a “costume.” That’s how photographers for newspapers refer to them in their captions under the spotlighted photo: “Walt, 6, of St. Louis, dances in costume at the 44th annual Popping Trees Pow Wow and Trade Show. The event runs through Sunday.” The ghost has one feather in his hair. But, again, you don’t know that one feather in an Indian’s hair signifies a female. Fucking Warner Bros. They really don’t know shit about Indians, but I’d still take their cartoons over the Asian invasion cartoons on Saturday mornings any day. Their mouths open and shut with the speed of a light switch flicked on then off; and never is there natural movement for a lip reader to follow. To the deaf, Pokémon cartoon characters converse with one word: Om.
“So I’m here to answer your question,” says the misty, translucent Indian man who doesn’t appear to be sitting, but hovering over the middle part of the backseat. “You wanted to know where the yellow ribbon comes from, right?”
“Well … yes,” you say.
“First, keep your eye on the road. Traffic started moving again while you were rudely staring at me. Second, I’ll tell you this history of the ribbon briefly, but only for a few minutes. I’ve got to go. Kevin Costner is about to use the bathroom and I need to get back in enough time to hide his toilet paper. That bastard!”
You step on the gas, grab hold of your bearings and steering wheel as the Indian ghost fills you in with the story behind the yellow ribbon.
“I don’t know much about the ribbon in pre-America Europe. I heard it comes from there, like most things that first came to America in the early days of this nation. But I can tell you about its history with the Indians.”
The spirit hovers over the passenger seat from the back and sits shotgun. “Can anybody see you?” you ask.
“Why? Are you afraid someone is going to see you with an Indian and start to follow you like we’re going to some stupid fucking trade show?”
“Never mind. Keep going with the story.”
“OK then. Look. Think back. Remember those John Wayne movies and all of those western flicks where the Indian was grunting and Tonto-talking and running around the prairies in loincloths even in winter?”
“Yes,” you respond with a tinge of curiosity in your tone.
“OK, now, do you remember what the Cavalry wore? What those Indian fighters had around their neck?”
You think about the time Dad pulled you in the front room from the dinner table when you were a kid and told you about the greatness of the legendary John Wayne. On the new boob-tube color TV screen he was in his signature cowboy hat standing large in the doorway of a wooden shack nestled somewhere in the desert in the west. Flanking and surrounding him were all of these mustached soldiers, adorned in blue blouses and pants with knee-high black boots and gold-plated buttons. You also remember the yellow sash draped around their neck, sitting atop their shoulders.
“It was a big, yellow handkerchief.”
“Exactly,” the Indian says. “They used to leave those with their wives and children before leaving home for a battle – mostly massacres – with the Indians. Sometimes, and as the song reiterates, they’d tie the handkerchief around a tree until they returned. Over time it became a ribbon. I don’t know if the ribbon came first or the song. Still, Indian fighters did this – tied their yellow handkerchief around a tree – before a fight with us.”
“Can I ask you something?” you say. “How did you die?”
“Smallpox. It was cold. I needed a blanket. I knew I stood the chance of contracting the white man’s disease, but I would’ve died anyway from frostbite or hypothermia or something. So, the dice rolled against me and I crapped out. And no, that’s not a casino reference.”
“OK, I was just asking – curious if you died in battle against a soldier with a yellow sash tied somewhere on a tree in his yard.”
“My brother did,” he says. “He was a warrior. A fighter and deft hunter. He stood taller than most of the men in our nation, which was weird because our parents were freakishly short. Nobody knows where he got his height or, for that matter, his strength from. He was just built that way. I was the Danny DeVito to his Schwarzenegger frame, instead I was skinny and not stout like that Vince Benedict character in Twins.”
“How come you’re familiar with modern cinema?” you ask.
“How come you’re not watching the road?” he says.
The traffic in front of you has moved about a hundred yards away from where you are just parked, too lost in the story of the apparition in the passenger seat to pay any attention to the cars in front of you.
“Look. I’ve got to get going. Kevin Costner is about to hit the pot after a bran muffin and fucking with him is the better part of my day. But you got your answer, right? The yellow handkerchief dates back to Indian fighters and “supporting the troops” even when the enemy was a sleeping Indian camp with men and defenseless women and children.”
“I’ve got it,” you say. “… Other than fucking with Kevin Costner, what else is the best part of your day?”
“Taking socks from the dryers of white people who claim they’re a quarter Cherokee. When they freak out that they can’t find a certain sock, that’s just the bee’s knees for me. Fuck em.’ There are so many I’ll never run out of fun.”
“You’re a twisted ghost.”
“You’re a shitty driver.”
The ghost leaves through a crack in the passenger-side window, like sand through a keyhole. Traffic spontaneously opens up and all that can be seen is open road and clarity. No more blinding light. No more apprehended wrists or ankles fastened to bedposts. No more congestion or red Mustangs to cut you off. Just freedom, the open road and clearness lie ahead. A calm, cool breeze wafts through the window you, not a moment before, decided to roll all the way down. You hope the breeze is the Indian ghost again, come with more vulgarity blended with mind-rattling knowledge. But no. “Somewhere,” you say, “Kevin Costner is having one hell of a movement.”
You finally pull up to work. Your boss isn’t in his office. And as you reflect you can’t recall seeing his BMW SUV in his reserved space. You’re not late anyway, so he wouldn’t have shit to say to you even if he was in his office sharpening his piercing tongue and pencils. It seemed like you should have been late, though. Very late. From the stop-and-go traffic to the hovering, informative Indian spirit, the whole commute seemed to last the day. But you’re actually in before the assistant manager. She’s slow anyway. Probably resulting from all that makeup she wears. She’d probably be stunning with a natural beauty if she didn’t wear so much, but I don’t think anyone has ever told her that. Someone should. We’re all minus one compliment at all times, aren’t we?
From your station, this ugly gray fabric cubicle, you can see your boss pulling into his parking space outside. He’s backing in. On the trunk of his expensive sedan suspends that yellow ribbon magnet with “Support Our Troops” scribed on it. Just like the Mustang from earlier.
“You’re here early,” your boss says. He’s not so smug this time around.
Yeah. I usually am except for that once.”
“Well … keep it up then,” he says.
As your boss turns to leave, you say, “Excuse me, sir?”
“Yes?” he says.
“Do you know the history behind that yellow ribbon you have there on the back of your car?”
“Not really,” he says. You detect a hint of curiosity in his voice. He crosses his arms, leans on the partition of your cubicle and says, “I would like to know, though.”
You smile, swivel your chair toward him and say, “Oh. Well then. Do I have a story for you.”