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My Cousin, The Zebra

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One of the first memories I have took place with my cousin Mikey at our grandparents’ house in Zia. They had a concrete driveway that ended with dirt and sand. At the age of five or six, we would sit in the sand next to southeast corner of the concrete slab and play for hours. In that particular corner, where the cement ran underneath the frame and hardened, there was a long, smooth, black-and-white striped stone that emerged from the rest of the rocks trapped in the concrete. We would try to pull the stone out. We would wash the stone to make it shine. Our youthful imagination revolved around that stone. We grew so attached to the stone that we created a scenario where a zebra walked through the land while that cement was poured and, as a result, forever cemented into our grandparents’ driveway. We both felt bad for that stupid, trapped creature, but it made us laugh every time we sat in that spot.

On the Reservation, everyone is a cousin – even if they are not your cousin. If I see another native and point them out to a friend, I can say, “Oh yeah, he or she is my cousin.” That statement just means that they are native and you know them so – by default – you are cousins. Everybody on the Rez is a cousin.

Well, Mikey was my cousin. He was a real first cousin. His mother was my real aunt. His mother was one of my father’s older sisters. (I’m sure you didn’t need me to explain or define what it takes to be a proper cousin. I just wanted to give a RIP shoutout to my Auntie and Dad.) 

Mikey was born February 14, 1977. I’m pretty sure the only reason I remember Mikey’s birthday is because he was born on Valentine’s Day. I was a couple of months older than him, and we spent a lot of time together in our younger days.

Mikey was my favorite storyteller. He had the ability to paint absurd word pictures in my mind that always made me laugh. He once told me a story about an experience he had at the New Mexico State Fair. In his special way, he shared that he witnessed a man swallow an entire hotdog without taking a bite. However, the man choked because the whole hotdog – bun and all – got caught in his throat. He said that the hotdog had gone horizontal in the man’s throat, and the shape of it poked out from both sides of his neck. Within the drama of the story, the paramedics arrived in hopes of saving the man’s life. Within a few seconds, I felt bad for the man, but my sympathy transitioned to laughter as I envisioned that stupid hotdog gone sideways in his throat. To this day, I’m not sure if the man survived.

Everyone with cousins knows that they go hand in hand with mischief. Zia Pueblo’s main plaza is situated on top of a mesa, and when winter sets in, the community tosses the ashes from their wood burning stoves and ovens off the edge of the plateau. After hundreds of years of tossed ashes, you can only imagine the powdery pile that forms. Mikey and I decided that we, along with the younger, teachable cousins, should jump off one of the cliffs and tumble into the soft pile. We would get a long, running start, land four-to-five feet down from the top and roll into the ashes. After a half-hour of fun we returned to the family plaza house, covered head to toe like ashy-white ghosts. Our parents were not happy. Our aunts were not happy. Our uncles were not happy. To our shame, they made us strip down to our tighty-whities and sit still on the living room couch until it was time to go home. I had never been more humiliated. 

Zia has it’s annual feast day on August 15th. Our family opens the doors to any and all visitors to rest their feet, catch some shade, and enjoy a meal. It is a very festive time. Sometimes, a traveling amusement park will set up below the mesa on feast day, and we’d end up with cheap, plastics toys and items only pranksters would buy. 

One year, something called “Fart Spray” hit the circus market. Mikey and I – along with my brothers and our younger cousins – thought it would be a good idea to invest in a can of the compressed odor. Once it was in our hands he sprayed away. The second it hit our noses we all gagged, ran in circles, fell to the ground, and laughed to the point of tears. We had an entire can to share with the reservation. We decided to spray the fart into the family plaza house where our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles were gathered after a long day of festivities. We ran in the front door, hustled through the living room and kitchen while spraying fart in all directions, and barged out the back door. Every single person in that room dashed out of the house on the verge of puking. To say that they weren’t happy would be an understatement. Mikey and I were the leaders of the pack so we reaped the consequences. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, and parents were milliseconds away from disowning us forever.

Those are a few of my childhood experiences with Mikey. I guess it’s normal to have a lot of years pass as cousins grow older. As we went on in years, I would see him during holidays or other special events. We both chose our own paths. Weekends became weeks. Weeks became months. Months became years. We rarely saw each other.

A few years ago, a couple of guys from Albuquerque started a YouTube channel called Anti-Social. Anti-Social would go around the University of New Mexico and make absurd videos based on social experiments. I thought they were hilarious. They had just released a new video, so I set up shop and watched the whole thing. In this particular episode, Anti-Social was offering random strangers and students a cold corndog. The reactions were priceless. One guy riding a unicycle slapped it to the ground. Others viewed the offering as strange. At the very end of the video, they offered a blurred-out face one of their corndogs, and the subject said, “Yes.” The voice was all too familiar… 

It was Mikey. 

He humbly accepted the corndog – his gratitude genuine. He saw it as a gift. However, he was not an idiot. In typical Mikey fashion, he asked if it was poisoned, challenged the guys in Anti-Social to take the first bite, and complained that the stupid corndog was cold. Eventually, he decided that it would be a good snack. Upon conclusion, he inquired if Anti-Social had anything to smoke, and then walked away.

That video captured Mikey. He was humble, honest, resourceful and still made me laugh. Plus, it reminded me of his stupid state fair hotdog story. 

The next morning. I showed my wife the video. We were in the parking lot of a coffeeshop. I found the video on my phone and started playing it without telling her that Mikey was in the video. As he entered into his YouTube debut, my wife looked at me with surprise and asked, “is that Mikey?” The moment she said his name, a phone call from an unknown number interrupted the video. To my surprise, it was Mikey! We hadn’t talked in years. It was perfect timing. We talked for a few minutes, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that we were watching a video of him taking a cold corndog.

On September 4, 2016, during a going-away party for a friend, I received another phone call. This time it was from my auntie. I answered and she simply stated, “I have some bad news. Mikey was shot. He didn’t make it.” 

The only words I had for response were, “that sucks.” 

I hung up the phone, sat on the couch, told my wife and a friend, and sort of just zoned out for the rest of the night. 

Mikey was shot five times in the torso at a 7-11 convenience store. Three bullets exited and two remained in his body. It was later reported that a nurse on the scene called 911 and administered CPR. They caught the murderer five days later. I found out more details that’ll keep to myself, but I will say this: it was stupid and senseless. He should still be alive. My one desire is to look Mikey’s murderer in the eyes since he was the last to see him alive.

I haven’t wept since his death. A few, single tears have ran down my face… but I haven’t sobbed. I watched my aunts, uncles, and cousins weep, but I feel somewhat detached. Perhaps I’m just numb. I’ve tried to be angry at his murderer, but even that seems fake and conjured. The strongest emotion that I’ve felt is an acute disdain for the city of Albuquerque but even that vanishes into some sort of wispy hope. I have tried so hard over the years to believe that there is hope for this stupid city, but my cousin was shot five times and those shots seem to echo in my mind. 

One of the last conversations I had with Mikey was reflective and serious. He asked me if I remembered the zebra trapped in the concrete driveway at our grandparents’ house in Zia. He had a tired and contrite look in his eyes, and pleaded, “I wish that I could regain and once again know the innocence of those days.” 

Perhaps those words will drown out the five shots that mocked and stole his breath and life. 

Here’s to Mikey’s innocence. Not a naive innocence, but a restored innocence. A regained innocence that removes our stupid cousin-folly. 

Here’s to the hope of renewed innocence for my family, friends, city, and murderer.