Things That Happened Before the Earthquake

Chiara Barzini

August 18, 2017 
The following is from Chiara Barzini’s novel, Things That Happened Before the Earthquake. In this coming-of-age tale, teenage Eugenia moves with her parents from Rome to LA's San Fernando Valley—an adjustment further complicated by the effects of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Barzini is the author of the story collection Sister Stop Breathing (Calamari Press, 2012) and has written a variety screenplays for both television and film.

“We cannot be happy in this land if we don’t pay tribute to the people who originally inhabited it,” my mother proclaimed. She had concluded her repertoire of books and biographies on the Sioux tribe and felt that in order to love America, we had to see it as it was originally imagined. Shortly after our family-lunch fiasco, Robert the Goth went off his medications and had a psychotic breakdown. He ran away from his art-school campus and tried to electrocute himself on a high-voltage security fence. He needed a couple of weeks off from work while he got back on his feet and started his new pills, so my father had time to kill.

We made a Thanksgiving trip of it and visited the battle field of the Wounded Knee Massacre of the Lakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My grandmother would not come in the Cadillac convertible. She hated it and said it was ridiculous and uncomfortable, so we bought a used Pontiac station wagon with tinted windows for $500. It took us three days and a few mechanical problems to get to South Dakota.

When we arrived we drove straight to the reservation. We parked in an empty lot by the mass grave. When the engine was turned off, the valley around us hummed. My mother got out and scurried to the trunk. She had been preparing for this moment.

We would pay tribute to the deceased souls of the Lakota and honor the fact that they were there before anybody else. She decided we would plant cyclamen bulbs by the graves and say a prayer. She had packed a suitcase full of loose flower seeds as well as a pile of white rags we should wear for the ceremony.

“A hundred years ago, three hundred Indian men, women, and children were massacred by American troops,” Serena said solemnly as she passed around the faded garments. She did not find anything that fit my grandmother, so she gave her an old white bedsheet, insisting she take her clothes off and wrap herself in it “as a sign of respect.”

“I’m not going to do that,” my grandmother replied. She got back in the car and shut the door. “I am not getting arrested for being naked again, and I am not walking around in a bedsheet.”

“Stop acting like a baby!” Serena complained.

My grandmother stomped her feet and remained glued to the backseat of the Pontiac.

“You can’t make me do this.”

“Fine! When the spirit of Spotted Elk comes to you in the form of a fierce antelope and tries to stab you with his horns, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!”

Timoteo and I rolled our eyes. This was a typical phenomenon that followed our mother’s intensive research phases: clippings, books, excessive enthusiasm, then playing the victim if others dissented from her opinions.

“I’m not going to that stupid grave site. I’m not afraid of Spotted Elk and I am not wearing this!” My grandmother took the bedsheet, threw it out the window, and locked the car.

“These people were here first!” Serena pounded her fist on the glass.

“They can stay here for all I care! I’m going back to Italy in one month and you know what?” She rolled down the window so we could all hear her. “I think you should do the same! You can’t just carry your kids with you everywhere you go.”

“I do whatever I want with my children!” my mother screamed at her. “They love me and are happy to follow us whatever we choose to do, right, kids?”

We did not answer.

“See!” my grandmother squealed.

Serena’s lip started to quiver. I knew what was coming. “There you go. I can never do anything right, can I?” She broke down crying in the barren South Dakota field. “All you do is complain! I’m just trying my best!” she wailed in a fit of self-pity.

Making a scene inside the quiet cemetery seemed wrong. I hated seeing my mother sob. Her melodramatic tantrums always caught me off guard. I didn’t like it when our roles reversed, when she cried like a baby and I had to be the grown-up. I would do everything I could to stop her from going down that route.

“We’d follow you anywhere. We are all happy to be here.” I tried to console her with a hug.

My father wrapped his arms around her also. He knew the drill. He told her how much we all adored Native Americans. There was no other place we’d rather be than the barren battle-field of Wounded Knee.

“Then is it so much to ask of you to put some white clothes on?” Serena whimpered.

My grandmother scoffed from her seat in the car, crossed her arms, and mumbled, “Manipulative bitch.”

“What did you say, Mom?” my mother snapped, peering through the window.

“Nothing,” I interjected. “She just doesn’t want to wear the white robe.”

“Sheet!” my grandmother screamed from the car. “Bedsheet, not robe!”

I found a sleeveless baby doll nightgown in my suitcase and gave it to my grandmother to wear over her clothes, but Serena kept frowning, unconvinced. She handed my brother his outfit: extra-large white boxers and a T-shirt that belonged to my father.

“I don’t want to go around in Dad’s underwear,” he complained, but our mother’s lip trembled again and he put on the boxers without further discussion.

My father wore yoga pants and a long-sleeved Indian shirt. My mother slipped into a white tunic-style nightgown and I put on yellowing thermal pajamas from the Salvation Army.

Together, finally, we walked toward the site.

The aluminum fence that guarded the Wounded Knee burial grounds was shut. Inside were dusty graves and a chapel that was missing part of its roof. White bunnies scavenged for food, unafraid to get close. We hopped over and pried the gate open so grandma could get in. The great battle field was silent. It was freezing. A brutal, dry wind scratched our skins. We stood next to one another in front of the mass grave where hundreds of Sioux had been buried. A wooden plaque told us we were officially on a U.S. National Historic Landmark, but it didn’t feel like it. We were the only visitors. The graves were falling apart, some were so dirty it was impossible to read them. Others were made from mud, decorated with skimpy wooden crosses impaled in the soil before them.

My mother’s eyes swelled with tears. She had been reading about this battle for months. She thought we would be visiting some kind of Holocaust museum, but we were all discovering America wasn’t interested in conserving certain chapters of its history. She read out loud from a cement slab that vaguely resembled an obelisk: “In memory of the Chief Big Foot massacre December 29, 1890. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.”

“Is this it?” My grandmother sighed as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to come to this stupid site anyway.”

Serena ignored her and let her grumble away. She held my hand and my brother’s, then closed her eyes in prayer.

“Dear Sioux, I bring you my family and ask you to welcome them to your land. We know this country belonged to you first and we want you to know we come in peace. Namaste.”

My brother elbowed me.

“That’s not the Native American way of saying ‘peace.’ It’s Indians from India who say that,” I corrected her timidly.

Serena shot me a look.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s the energy the word carries that counts. You should know that.”

“Amen,” concluded my father.

The high sun emanated a metallic light that cast a wild luminescence on the tall grass around us. The wind blew through the holes in my Salvation Army thermal underwear. We were all too vulnerable under the huge South Dakota sky. It felt like it would swallow us whole, inter us into its sacred land with the lost tribes.

We planted Serena’s cyclamen bulbs close to the mass grave. We all knew they would never turn into owers. A graceful hawk circled in the sky. On our way out we noticed a large for sale sign on the back side of the cemetery’s fence. The eighty acres of the Wounded Knee Historic Landmark were being offered for more than a million dollars by the owner of the land. What was left of the Sioux tribe could not afford the price.

From the parking lot, the Prairie Wind Casino and Hotel looked more like a warehouse than a hotel. A long, horizontal cement structure extended from both sides of a faux-tepee sculpture that served as an iconic entrance gate. On each side of the building, rusty billboards depicted multicolored horses galloping into the wind.

“Feel the Wind and Feel the Win!” an advertisement said.

My mother was drawn to the idea that the place was owned and run by the Sioux. Choosing to stay there was a way to pay them back. While my parents checked in, through the revolving doors I caught a glimpse of a lonely Native American Elvis impersonator getting hammered at the bar, preparing for his evening performance. We were all aware we had ended up in a desperate place in the middle of nowhere, but we also knew that saying anything would precipitate Serena’s final breakdown and ruin the rest of our vacation. We made a silent pact not to mention drunk Elvis or the senile gamblers who sat like zombies in front of the slot machines next door.

Thanksgiving lunch was served at the casino buffet. We could eat all we wanted for $13.99. My mother’s quasi-religious views about Indians and their tribes, about the purity we had to give back to the once-virgin land, disappeared into a plate of turkey nuggets and canned cranberry sauce. Over our heads TV screens looped diamond-studded gambling catchphrases: “Cold Days, Hot Cash!”

A giant turkey with dollar bills coming out of its tail fan winked: “Free Thanksgiving bingo. We’ll give you something to be thankful for!”

I forced myself to eat and smile and prayed that my mother’s furrowed brows would smooth out over her eyes, that her lip would stop trembling and time would go by fast.

The five of us stayed in the casino’s Black Elk Imperial Suite so we could all fit. The kitchenette was decorated with a framed portrait of the very white Charles Fey of San Francisco, the man who invented the first slot machine. “A big THANK YOU Mr. Fey!” read a golden plaque beneath him. We visited a hot tub in a glass house in the casino’s internal courtyard. The water was lukewarm and brownish, but hot tubs were exciting for my family. Any kind of pool or water container that t people was. If it had the ability to produce bubbles, generate heat, and massage body parts with jets, it made an entire journey worthwhile.

We bathed in silence. Nobody else was in the glass house.

My grandmother, in a golden one-piece bathing suit, exhaled through the vapors. Her hair turned turquoise under the neon lights. She was trying to get the sore parts of her lower back directly in front of the tub’s jet. I imitated her and sat in front of the gushing water, pretending I also suffered from incurable ailments.

“Watch out for hemorrhoids! They can creep up on you if you let the jets in your anus” she warned me.

I didn’t know what hemorrhoids were but I knew I didn’t want anything in my anus that was problematic for my grandmother’s. I floated under the neon lights. The windows got fogged up. We were bathing in a hospital room and I knew then, with complete lucidity, I did not want to be there.


From THINGS THAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE EARTHQUAKE. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2017 by Chiara Barzini.

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