by Steve & Barry Simpson
It was a slow night at Twin Rocks Cafe. Outside giant flakes of snow gently fell, and a thick white blanket cloaked the gravel parking lot. But for the occasional snowplow that scraped and sparked along the pavement just east of the restaurant, the highway and the town seemed deserted.
There are few functioning streetlights in Bluff, so the community was dark, almost pitch black. Town residents huddled inside, hibernating as the storm mounted its silent but sustained assault on southeastern Utah.
In order to get the staff safely on their way home and me warmly snuggled into bed at a reasonable hour, I sat quietly at table 9 rolling silverware. Don’t misunderstand me, that’s not an unusual circumstance, I can generally be found employing such talents Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings at Twin Rocks.
I have, therefore, become a crackerjack restaurant manager. Well, “crackerjack” may be overstating my abilities a bit, but I have at least become proficient at the highly technical skills of mopping, sweeping and schlepping food.
As I rolled on, a family of six trudged in and sat a few feet behind me. They were the only patrons, and therefore added a much-needed dimension to the dining room. One of the children was celebrating his birthday, so his parents had decided to brave the storm and head into Bluff instead of firing up the cook stove.
Since the Navajo Reservation roads were a red, muddy, monstrosity, they had made a serious commitment for their offspring’s party. Although they drove a four-wheel drive SUV, it was apparent from reports filtering in over the course of the afternoon that many a better vehicle had been left mired in the muck.
As the cake expired and the ice cream began to run, the celebration wound down. About that time a young man of seven or eight ambled up to my right-hand side and peered at the small pile of eating utensils I had individually encircled with napkins.
Having fully inspected the situation and evaluated the quality of my work, the half-pint looked intently at me and asked, “Are you doing that?”
“Yep”, I responded, a bit confused by the structure of his inquiry, “you wannna help?”
“Nope”, he replied shaking his head back and forth, “it’s my birthday.”
“All righty then, happy birthday”, I said, extending my arm and giving him a high-five. He smiled warmly and headed back to his siblings.
Over the next several days I pondered the young man’s question, asking myself over and over again, “Are you doing that? Are you doing that!? Are you doing that!?” No matter how I framed the issue, I could not make sense of it and was haunted by the youngster and his query.
During our years at Twin Rocks Trading Post, Barry and I have often asked each other, “What are you doing?” “What are we doing?” sometimes even, “What the . . . heck are you/we doing?!”
To my knowledge, however, we had never asked, “Are you doing that?” The answer seemed self-evident, “Yes, I am doing that.” I could not, however, be certain. Call it an obsession, but I kept wondering whether this peculiar puzzle might add a whole new framework to our experience.
I began to question whether Barry and I were missing something really big, so I decided to launch a formal probe into the matter. I was getting to the bottom of this situation, no matter how much it cost or what the conclusion.
Priscilla was intently pricing turquoise bracelets and Navajo rugs just outside Barry’s office, so she was my first target. I elected to use the direct approach, and without any explanation asked, “Are you doing that?”
She looked at me as if I had spoken the secret code. “What?” I stammered.
“That is exactly what Born-for-Water said to Monster-slayer immediately before he slew Ye’iitsoh, the big monster, freeing the Navajo people from Monster-slayer’s tyranny. It is a sacred question that is only spoken by medicine men during the Big Monster Ceremony”, she said.
“I have never heard of the Big Monster Ceremony”, I said skeptically.
“Well, of course you haven’t”, she assured me, “it’s a ritual we don’t talk about with you white guys.” “Why did you ask that question?” she demanded.
“I just wanted to know what you were doing,” I said defensively. All the while I wondered what that kid knew that I didn’t, and whether he had intentionally set me up. “By the way Tonto, what do you mean by ‘white guys’?” I pushed back.
“The Big Monster Ceremony is probably our oldest rite, it came to us from the first world, when we were ants, grasshoppers and dung beetles. We have carried it ever since. I don’t think any non-Navajo person has ever been invited to one. In fact, it may be extinct. Don’t ask me any more questions”, Priscilla said emphatically.
“Okay”, I agreed, thinking she had surely confused the chronology of her legends. I would have to ask the Navajo culture expert Bob McPherson about this one.
Later that day I walked into Barry’s office to find he and Priscilla eating processed cheddar cheese slices, low fat Ritz crackers and Vienna sausages. “Come on, join our Big Monster feast”, Priscilla snorted. The two of them laughed out loud.
“Are you doing that?” I asked as I reached into the can for a wiener. “Penance”, I told myself as I choked down the slime dog, “penance for being so naive.”