Lyman recalls that he was the first person to drive a convertible on his reservation, a red Oldsmobile. He and his brother Henry owned it together, until Henry’s “boots filled with water on a windy night” and he “bought out” Lyman’s share.
Early on, Lyman establishes that he lives on a reservation, which implies that he is probably Native American. Like most reservations, it is not wealthy – note that Lyman is not just the first person to own a convertible, but the first person to ever drive one. He also leaves ambiguous what exactly happens to Henry. “Boots filled with water” is an ominous and mysterious phrase—If something bad happened to Henry, why would he continue to own the car, and why would Lyman give it up? This mystery is a hook into the story, but it also reflects the silence around Henry’s struggle.
Lyman has always had an easy time making money, which he claims is “unusual in a Chippewa.” He shined shoes and sold bouquets as a kid. When he was fifteen, he got a job washing dishes at the Joliet Café, which he eventually came to own. The café was destroyed in a tornado, but before that happened, he bought the convertible with Henry.
Here, Lyman makes it clear that he is Native American, and admits that his relative wealth is unusual. This characteristic is important, as it shapes Lyman’s experience and the arc of the story. His ability to make money with ease allows him to buy the convertible and gives him and his brother their freedom for a long time.
Henry and Lyman are in Winnipeg when they stumble upon the convertible, which seems almost larger than life, and they decide to buy it. One summer, they travel all over the Great Plains, into Canada, even up to Alaska in the car without a care in the world. According to Lyman, they don’t “hang on to details” when they travel: those would just be bothersome. They pick up a young hitchhiker named Susy from Alaska, with whom they stay for a season, in a tent outside her family’s house.
In this part, Henry and Lyman are at their freest and most innocent. They are able to travel freely, and the red convertible is both a literal source of their freedom and a symbol of it, with its youth and energy. Their decision to take Susy all the way home, even though she lives all the way up in Alaska, and then stay there impulsively, epitomizes their freedom in terms of time and money.
One night, Susy comes to see them. “You never seen my hair,” she says, and she takes her hair down to reveal that it reaches all the way to the ground. Henry picks her up on his shoulders and twirls her around so her hair sways from side to side. “I always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair,” he says.
This scene takes on greater meaning later, after Henry is traumatized from war. This scene reveals that his true nature is calm, jocular, and not overly concerned with norms of masculinity, but instead comfortable in himself. There is a stark difference between the carefree Henry in this scene and the traumatized Henry that appears later.
Henry and Lyman head home, and before long Henry is drafted into the Vietnam War as a Marine. Lyman suspects that Henry’s regiment wanted him because he looks so tough, like the Native American warrior Red Tomahawk. He doesn’t write many letters home, and is for a period captured by the enemy. Meanwhile, Lyman writes him lots of letters and keeps the convertible in top shape for him. He considers himself lucky that he did not get drafted, and acknowledges that Henry was never lucky like he was.
Henry’s lack of letters home is not out of character and so it does not alarm Lyman, but it ends up being important—this is the beginning of his sudden silence. He never speaks about his capture, which would undoubtedly be a traumatic experience and would have contributed to his loss of innocence. By comparison, Lyman seems childishly innocent—writing countless letters without expecting a reply and keeping the car in perfect shape as if Henry will be back at any moment.
When Henry comes home, he is very different. He can no longer sit still, he hardly ever laughs, and he never makes jokes like he did before. He even has no interest in the convertible. Because of this, others mostly leave Henry alone, and he spends long stretches of time watching the color TV that Lyman bought for the family, gripping the armrests of his chair tightly. One day, he bites through his lip while watching, and blood drips down his chin. Lyman tries to turn off the TV, but Henry stops him by shoving him out of the way. Eventually their mother comes in and turns off the TV. They sit down and eat dinner with Henry’s blood still trickling down his chin, mixing with his food.
Henry’s loss of innocence manifests in what is now easily recognizable as PTSD, which was common during the Vietnam War (and is common today, as well). His silence, emphasized by his time spent in front of the television, contrasts sharply with the way he used to laugh and joke. His trauma also manifests physically when he bites through his lip and seems not to notice—blood running down his chin like something out of a horror film while he eats in front of his entire family.
Lyman and his mother think about what to do for Henry. There is only one doctor nearby, a non-Indian doctor that used to court their mother, whom they fear might take revenge on Henry for Lulu’s rejection of him. They also fear that if they take him to a “regular hospital” they may never see him again, or he might become a drugged-out zombie instead of receiving actual treatment, which puts them at an impasse. They also acknowledge it is unlikely that Henry would agree to go to a hospital.
Henry’s condition has become pressing and must be dealt with, but their access to medical care is questionable because of their status as Native Americans on a reservation. Their only options are to take Henry to non-Indians for treatment, and they fear (reasonably so) that they may discriminate against him. Lyman also suggests that Henry would object to going to a hospital, which may be because of the silencing and stigma around illness, mental illness in particular.
Henry has shown no interest in the convertible since he got home from the war, but Lyman decides that the car might bring “the old Henry back.” He waits till Henry is gone one night and takes a hammer to it, destroying the car as best he can. Over a month later, Henry confronts Lyman about the state of the car, and Lyman goads him into fixing the car himself. Henry spends weeks at it, day and night. He hardly ever watches their TV, and is somewhat better than he was before, not as jumpy. By the time he’s done, the car is as good as new. One day, Henry suggests that they take the car for a ride. Encouraged by Henry’s sudden interest in taking the car out like old times, Lyman agrees.
Henry’s lack of interest in the convertible has to do with his trauma. Lyman, in his youthful innocence, hopes that the car (a symbol of their freedom and innocence) can somehow bring back Henry’s own lost youth. However, instead of talking to Henry about what happened to him or what he needs, Lyman takes action in silence by destroying the car. Again, the culture of silence around illness hinders Henry’s recovery. Lyman’s unusual tactic for Henry’s recovery is well-meant, but it turns out to not be enough.
Their sister Bonita makes them pose for a photograph with the car before they go. Lyman recalls the picture, which he kept on the wall for a long time until one night he realized how much it tormented him. Slightly drunk and high, he suddenly saw clearly in the photo how haunted Henry was, with his shadowed eyes and forced, painful smile. His friend Ray helped him bag the picture and hide it in a closet, but he still remembers the stark difference in their faces every time he passes the closet.
It is only upon seeing the photograph in a particular light that Lyman realizes how much Henry was suffering, and how obvious that was in the physical features of his face. Perhaps it occurs to Lyman for the first time that Henry could easily have been miserable enough to kill himself. It also reveals the gap of knowledge between Henry and Lyman, exacerbated by their silence.
After they take the picture, they take a full cooler and make the trip to the Red River, because Henry wants to see the high water. The trip is beautiful and relaxing, and Lyman thinks Henry seems unusually calm and happy. They build a fire and Henry falls asleep, but Lyman becomes anxious and wakes him up. They start talking and Henry reveals that he knew what Lyman was doing by intentionally damaging the convertible. He wants Lyman to have the car all to himself, but Lyman refuses, and they argue back and forth until they start roughhousing. They hit each other too hard, drawing blood, and finally they stop, agreeing that Lyman will have the car. Both still in pain, they open beers and drink them all, making each other laugh.
Back in the car traveling together, it seems to Lyman that maybe things can go back to the way they used to be, before Henry went to war. Henry even seems calmer, and Lyman starts to think that maybe his unusual homemade plan for treating Henry has worked. Their roughhousing and joking with each other also hearkens back to their more innocent days, but something is off. They hit each other too hard—Henry has tears in his eyes and Lyman’s face is swollen. Henry doesn’t want the car anymore, and Lyman cannot understand that because it does not fit in with his idea that Henry is getting better, or, more accurately, going back to the way he was before (which is, of course, impossible). Their typically masculine behaviors and silence on the topic of what is actually happening with Henry are connected.
Something has changed in the air, and Lyman suggests they go back, maybe try to pick up some girls. Henry, his mood shifted for the worse, complains that all the girls “up here” are crazy. Lyman jokes back that he, too, is crazy—that they all are crazy—trying to rile him up, hoping to keep having fun. Henry frowns at first, but plays along, shouting, “Crazy Indians!” and jumping around, drunk and rambunctious as before. Lyman cracks up, and suddenly Henry shouts, “Got to cool me off!” and jumps in the river.
Again, Lyman and Henry do not know how to talk about the obvious changes in Henry’s demeanor. Lyman’s attempt to make a joke about “crazy” nearly backfires (perhaps because it cuts too close to what Henry worries is true about himself), but Henry decides to make it a joke about how others view them as crazy for being Indians, perhaps a joke they have long been making. But still, something is different, and even these jokes feel slightly dangerous. It is clear that, despite Lyman’s attempts to take them back to the innocent days of their youth, even simple interactions between them will never be the same.
The river is high and the current is strong. It’s getting dark, and Lyman sees that the current has already carried Henry much too far. “My boots are filling,” he says placidly, and then he’s gone. Lyman goes in the river after him, but it is too late. Devastated, Lyman pushes the red convertible into the river to join him.
This moment is Lyman’s second loss of innocence—when he loses his brother for the last time. Henry’s calm response is particularly haunting. Even if he wasn’t intending to kill himself, his hopelessness in the face of extreme danger shows how little will he has to live. There is no sound after he jumps in, and he does not even scream. Lyman throws the car into the river because he cannot bear to hang on to this symbol of youth, freedom, and innocence when his brother lost all of those things as well as his life. Finally, the opening lines make sense—the car is Henry’s again.