It is 1979, and the young unnamed narrator is “learning how to be thirteen.” He is trying to figure out what it means to be a boy, a man, and an Indian. “And of course,” he says now—narrating from twelve years into the future—“I had to understand what it meant when my father got a phone call [from the Secret Witness Program in Spokane] one night out on the reservation.” Someone has turned the narrator’s father’s name into the police, along with the knowledge that he might have answers about the ten-years-passed disappearance of a man named Jerry Vincent.
The disappearance of Jerry Vincent throughout this story works as a sort of red herring—there’s no answer to the mystery, but the cyclical fallout from his death plagues the narrator’s father and, by proxy, the narrator himself. The father is called upon to serve as witness to an event that he may or may not have actually been witness to, and the gray area in between is full of shattered memories and years of inherited pain.
The next day, on the drive into Spokane, the narrator asks his father a barrage of questions. His father reveals that he was in the same bar as Jerry on the night of his disappearance. The two were “mostly” friends, he says, and “nobody knows for sure” what happened to him. The narrator’s father tells him that Jerry “wasn’t the first one to disappear like that,” citing relocation programs that “sent reservation Indians to the cities” and sometimes “swallowed [them] up.” The narrator’s father admits that he left the reservation for a few years as part of one of these programs and that, when he returned, “everybody [had] heard [he] was dead [or] disappeared.”
The narrator’s father’s memories of Indians being “swallowed up” by a system that did not take care of them reveals a great deal of pain and isolation. The ease with which the narrator’s father’s friends and family had accepted his disappearance shows the willingness of their community to accept a loss or mystery without a second glance—probably because of how prevalent such losses have become.
The narrator’s father hits a patch of ice, and their car skids wildly, but doesn’t crash. The narrator wonders “if a near accident is an accident, if standing next to a disaster makes you part of the disaster.” The narrator and his father continue talking about Jerry Vincent. His father insists that he has told the police the same story many times, and that though he knows how Jerry Vincent died—shot in the head in an alley behind a bar—he does not know who killed him, and he only knows the story of his death “because every Indian knows the story.” The narrator notes that his father “has the whole thing memorized.”
Similar to Norma telling Junior that being a watcher makes you a part of the thing you’re watching, the narrator here muses whether his father’s adjacent position to Jerry Vincent’s disappearance does in fact make him a part of it. The narrator’s father’s memorization of Jerry’s death speaks to rote acceptance of loss and violence, and the ways in which he has been called upon to recall it again and again throughout the years, in another cycle of loss and pain.
On the drive into Spokane, the narrator and his father see an Indian man they know—they call him Jimmy Shit Pants. He is drunk, and the narrator and his father give him some money, then “dr[ive] off and [leave] Jimmy to make his own decisions. That’s how it is. One Indian doesn’t tell another what to do. We just watch things happen.”
Here we see the flip side of witness-bearing; instances in which a blind eye is turned to those in pain, in danger, or in need. A cultural code of disengagement creates an atmosphere in which accountability and security alike are compromised.
The narrator’s father is not due at the police station for another hour, so he takes his son to get some food. While eating, the narrator asks his father whether he would tell the police if he knew who killed Jerry Vincent. the narrator’s father says he wouldn’t, because “they [don’t] care much anyway [and would just make more trouble for Indians.” The narrator asks his father if he has ever killed anyone. His father says that once, in a car crash, he killed a white driver accidentally. Because the man was intoxicated, and the narrator’s father was sober, he bore no responsibility in the man’s death.
The narrator probes his father more deeply as to the true nature of his involvement—or lack thereof—in Jerry Vincent’s disappearance, and learns that his father has been involved in some other stranger’s death. His minimal involvement mirrors the act of bearing witness, while the situation of a sober Native driver and a drunk white driver flips the prominent narrative of many of the other stories.
The narrator and his father arrive at the police station, and the narrator’ father tells him to wait in the car. The narrator watches his father as he walks into the station, and thinks he “look[s] as Indian as you can get; off the reservation, among all the white people, every Indian gets exaggerated.” The narrator imagines what his father is doing inside the police station, and eventually, spurred by boredom and the cold, gets out of the car and goes inside, where his father is still waiting to meet with the police.
Off the reservation, the narrator experiences feelings of isolation and scrutiny. Continuing with the story’s theme of bearing witness, we watch as the narrator begins to bear witness to what he and his father look like to those who are not a part of their community, and considers himself from a different point of view.
A detective arrives and greets the narrator and his father. He takes them into an office, and proceeds to question the narrator’s father, who has nothing new to add, and who tells the detective that he’s been questioned “annually.” The detective offers the narrator candy, but his father intervenes, explaining to the detective that he and his son are both diabetics. With nothing else to ask, the detective dismisses the narrator and his father.
The detective continues to seek a witness for a crime that has long since past. His discrimination against the narrator’s father leads readers to wonder how many other members of the Spokane tribe are subjected to similar scrutiny in regards to the Jerry Vincent murder (or other murders).
On the drive home, the narrator recalls, there “wasn’t much to say,” and wonders “at what point do we just re-create the people who have disappeared from our lives.” He thinks that “sometimes it seems like all Indians can do is talk about the disappeared.” When the narrator and his father arrive home, the narrator’s mother has fry bread waiting for them to eat. The narrator’s brothers and sisters watch television and play cards. The narrator’s father sits at the table and cries into his food while his family watches.
The re-creation of Jerry Vincent’s memory every year due to the narrator’s father’s journey to the police station ties in themes of storytelling and imagination, as well as loss and isolation. The fry bread dinner should symbolize comfort and a return to home, but the narrator’s father is so broken and distraught that he cannot be comforted.