Last Updated on January 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
Tony Loneman was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” and it has caused various effects. His face has physical differences, from drooping eyes to the spacing of his features, and he has been told that he is in the lowest intelligence percentile. At age twenty-one, he considers the Drome his “power and curse.” A counselor assures him that people born with FAS have a spectrum of abilities and tells him that he has great intuition and street smarts. Tony agrees with this assessment. He knows when people say one thing and mean another. He knows when someone is trying to “come up on” him. He knows how to spot fear in people.
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Tony’s grandmother, whom he calls Maxine, tells him that they are Cheyenne and that all the land they see once belonged to their people. Tony surmises that the Cheyenne didn’t have street smarts, since they allowed the white men to take all of their land. He then backtracks and says that they probably did but didn’t have the weapons of the white men, such as guns and diseases.
He talks to his mother, who is in jail, occasionally on the phone, but she usually makes a comment that makes him regret talking to her at all. She tells him that his father doesn’t know he exists, and when he asks for her to tell him, she refuses: “It ain’t simple like that.”
His tall and physically imposing figure helps Tony face conflict. He was suspended many times for fighting in schools, noting that when he gets mad, his face heats up and hardens “like metal,” and then he blacks out. He stands tall so that no one will bother him and predicts that “Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me. Maybe that’s when I’ll come to life.”
In order to help Maxine, Tony has been selling weed since he was thirteen. Once a nurse herself, now Maxine needs lots of medical assistance that she can’t afford. At her request, Tony also reads to her before bed, even though reading is difficult since the letters “move on [him] sometimes like bugs.” Maxine enjoys hearing “Indian stuff” that he doesn’t always understand but that somehow makes him feel better and less alone after reading it.
A group of white boys approach Tony in a liquor store parking lot and ask for “snow,” or coke. Tony isn’t sure he can get it but tells them to meet him at the same store in one week. He goes to find Octavio, who tells him that his own grandmother saved his life after his mother disappeared and that he would “give away [his] heart’s own blood for her,” which is the same way Tony feels about Maxine. The two make good money off the white boys and their friends that summer. One evening, Octavio asks Tony about his Native ancestry and then about the purpose of a powwow. Tony tells him that the purpose is to make money, and Octavio tells him “that’s why we’re gonna be at that powwow too.” Octavio has a gun made with a 3D printer and plans to use Tony to help stash the ammunition in a sock which he will then throw into some bushes at the event. Octavio says he owes somebody money and has to do things this way. Tony goes home and puts on his powwow regalia, feeling like an Indian dancer, not seeing the Drome.
The first time Dene Oxendene saw someone tag, he was on the bus. Dene is on his way to meet a panel of judges and believes they will all be old white men who will hate him immediately. Trying to acquire funds for a cultural arts grant, Dene is not “recognizably Native.” Instead, he is “ambiguously nonwhite,” and people have often simply asked him, “What are you?”
In a flashback, Dene recalls how he’d thought up the tag Lens when his uncle had come to visit. Someone had taken a photo of the bus Dene was riding, and in the aftermath of the blinding flash, the name Lens had come to him. He’d written it in Sharpie on the bus seat before getting off. Uncle Lucas, the man Dene recalls tossing him in the air as a young child, is the brother of Dene’s mother, Norma. Uncle Lucas enjoyed working on movies, which primarily consisted of planning them. Lucas shared an idea with Dene that he was especially personally invested in, a project that wouldn’t take much money to make. He wanted to interview Indians living in Oakland and ask them to tell him their stories “confessional style” to a camera while he left the room.
Dene went to school and returned home, but his uncle was missing. His mother told him that Lucas was dying of liver failure because of alcohol consumption. The next day, his uncle was back on the couch after school, and Dene watched Lucas continue drinking. He promised to be around for a while because liver failure takes years, and he asked Dene to make a movie with him; he had a “camera with a grip like a gun” that they could use.
Back in the present, Dene arrives at the building where the panel waits to hear his idea for the grant. Inside, he meets Rob, who is also applying for a grant. Rob makes an offhanded comment about how West Oakland is “dirt cheap” to live in, leaving Dene rather speechless. He goes on to say that no one is really from Oakland, and Dene wants to tell him about what has happened to his Native people—that he is from Oakland, born and raised there. Rob twists the meaning of a quote from Gertrude Stein that Dene has actually researched the full meaning of, a quote that means a great deal to him because it represents the experience of his people. Dene reflects, “But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
Dene is called back to present his proposal, and the diversity of the panel is surprising to him. He explains that the idea for this project began when he was thirteen and is the idea of his uncle, who has died. Dene wants to document Indian stories in Oakland by collecting people’s experiences without agenda or manipulation. He believes their stories are worth telling and hearing, and he already has a location for the project: the Indian Center. Dene tells them that the stories of Urban Indians are missing, and their stories should not be told as “pathetic or weak or in need of pity,” but with passion and rage. In the end, they indicate that they will grant him the five thousand dollars for the project, and Dene’s eyes fill with tears as he remembers his uncle.
Flashing back, Dene recalls going home to an empty house and finding a “gun camera” with a pistol grip. His mother finally returned home with a look on her face that told Dene his uncle was gone. Dene took off running but eventually thought of his mother, who hadn’t done anything wrong and was now home alone grieving her brother. Dene turned on the camera, wanting to believe that his uncle was with him when the camera was on. He found his mother crouched and crying. Dene pointed the camera at her, filming, as he looked away.