Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Teepee19 min read


Pamela Rentz
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“My order said plank house,” Skinny Charlie told the clerk. “Teepee isn’t the same as plank house.”

The images on the glowing sign faded before resetting. The spinning letters dropped down again: Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Teepee.

“Won’t make any difference to the tourists,” the clerk said. His dull features blended with the delivery chamber walls.

“The visitors aren’t the problem,” Charlie said. “What am I going to say to the official who checks the permit that says plank house and then the sign that says teepee?”

“Not responsible for input errors.” The clerk directed his response at a spot above Charlie’s head.

Charlie scrambled for the memory. A long wait at the public kiosk and others urging him to hurry as he fumbled through the data screens. “I didn’t do the input wrong,” he insisted.

Sighs and groans traveled back through the line. Some folks had been waiting in the delivery chamber a full sunrise-sunset click. The room suffered from cold gusty drafts and a solid metal floor that made the legs ache. Sadly, it was the only way to obtain government-issued items: repaired CommBundles, approved travel vouchers, medicines that weren’t distributed via more onerous channels.

The clerk dropped the sign onto the counter. He thumped a data screen with fat fingers. Behind him, a circular portal provided a foggy view of deep space. The Indians who had built the ship had used an inferior glastec sealant that had hazed over shortly after they’d left orbit. The inhabitants had grown accustomed to viewing the great infinite as a frosted blur.

“Look, uh—“ Charlie glanced at the clerk’s security tag, “Keith. It matters to me.” He reached for the flimsy synthflex banner, his fingers sliding on the waxy holo coating. He pointed to the spinning teepee glyph. “My ancestors didn’t live in teepees. They lived in plank houses.”

Keith swiveled the data screen to face Charlie. “See this?” Charlie strained on his toes, his tired legs shaking.

“Not really,” he said.

“It’s the data you entered,” Keith said. “It doesn’t say anything about a plank house.”

Charlie said, “Are you sure?”

“You want to change,” Keith said, “you start all over.”

“You can reprogram it, can’t you?” Charlie tried to look like a man worthy of mercy.

“It’s illegal for an unlicensed individual to reprogram a sign.” Keith squared his shoulders. “Technically, I should report you for asking.”

“Here’s my problem,” Charlie said. “The Indians get a three-unit slice on the time calendar for the cultural celebration period.” He used two fingers to wipe across an imaginary horizon. “A couple of clicks and the spectacle goes on. We got visitors doing major space travel to spend their money on the authentic Indian experience. I got things people should see.” This would be the moment to come up with an offering if Charlie had any to give.

Keith rolled up the sign and set it down.

“Come on,” Charlie said. “Help an old man?”

Keith made as if to toss the item aside.

“Fine,” Charlie said. “Give it over.”

Keith set it back on the counter and pointed at Charlie’s hand. He took prints and sealed a strand of hair in a sturdy bag. He tossed it behind the counter into a slot in the wall labeled: Current Business Only.

“The permit is to be kept on you at all times and shown to any official who asks. The banner can be displayed at any cultural celebration as long as you have a current permit.”

Keith waited with a pained smile while Charlie cleared the counter. The sign came undone when he picked it up and it took a few moments to pack it again. He shuffled down the corridor toward the exit.

A wheezy tone squeaked out from an overhead speaker. An electronic voice announced, “Now Entering: Ceremonial Leader Rufus BigFeather.”

Charlie stopped. This was a person who could help. “That man could bend any rule in the book and make the authorities think it was their idea,” the Cubicle Rep. once said.

Charlie bowed his head with the others. The Indian leader charged in, layers of bone and bead necklace rattling around his neck. Clumps of his shiny black hair flapped against his meaty cheeks. His ginger-haired daughters, Beebe and Tansy, followed like a regal entourage. Each girl wore a faux-hide dress decorated with theatrical amounts of fringe. They curtsied for the civilians.

Rufus bellowed, “Zane still here?” He followed the line until he found his man in a spot Charlie estimated as at least two meal periods away from a turn with Keith. The man wore fine clothes, obviously from off-ship, and what looked to be real leather boots. He had large ceremony disks woven into his shiny braids and stared forward with the sheen of calm that people with few worries possess.

So this was the Chief’s placeholder.

“What’s taking so long?” Rufus said.

“We’re on schedule, Chief, relax,” Zane said, his voice smooth and low.

Charlie took this moment to step into the Chief’s view. Rufus looked him over and returned his attention to Zane.

“Chief?” Charlie said, filling his voice with golden respect. He waited until the Chief looked over again. “Could use your help on a matter.”

Rufus shook his head. He said, “I’m in the middle of urgent business.”

“Understand the urgency,” Charlie said. “I’m in a bit of a squeeze myself.”

“Give me a minute,” Rufus said.

Charlie’s hopefulness disappeared when the Ceremonial Leader gestured at the spot where Zane stood. He was asking Charlie to hold the line. Even Beebe and Tansy’s eyes widened in surprise.

Rufus shook his finger impatiently. Unwilling to fuss, Charlie complied and side-stepped into the space Zane vacated.

Zane and Rufus moved away from the line and stood forehead to forehead. Rufus kept his voice quiet, but his entire body quaked as he spoke. Zane’s only movement was the lazy blink of his eyes. Rufus slipped a pouch into Zane’s hands then rushed from the chamber with the same bluster with which he had entered. His daughters hurried after him.

Zane returned to his spot. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said. Catching Charlie’s indignation, he added, “He meant no disrespect.”

“Didn’t have to mean it,” Charlie said. “Used to be the leader looked out for the people.”

“He does in his own way,” Zane said. He opened the pouch and took out a few ceremonial disks. These were unpolished and poorly made but still, each was worth at least a week’s worth of meals.

“You have to excuse me, Uncle,” Zane said, as he began to hand over disks and work his way up the line.


Charlie crossed the common area, bustling with work circles and small children playing. He hugged the cold bundle of the sign under his arm. As he made his way through the battered communal benches and dented tables, someone touched his sleeve.

“Wasn’t sure I could find you.” It was Zane.

“Line must have gone quicker after I left,” Charlie said. “No more duties for our Chief?”

“Nothing I can’t deal with later,” Zane said. He presented a box made of heavy paper.

“An offering?” Charlie said, without taking it. “What do you think I can do for you?”

“You misunderstand,” Zane said. “It’s a gift.” He worked the lid off and held it out again.

The box was divided into four padded sections each containing a fresh fig. Charlie stared into the box. After a moment he said, “You ever seen a fig tree?”

“Only in pictures,” Zane said.

“My grandma had one on her place. Green leaves big as your face. Best shady spot on a hot day.” He took the box. “Thank you.”

Zane shrugged, either too polite or too ignorant to acknowledge how food distribution worked on the lower levels.

“Join me?” Charlie pointed to a shabby door. Zane followed him inside.

“So, this is a government housing cubicle.” Zane stretched his arms out side to side and brushed his fingers on the walls. His eyes traveled the room, taking in the narrow sleeping pod and rust-pocked walls.

“What kind of place you got?” Charlie asked. He’d been to some of the upper levels when he was a boy but these days you needed an entry pass.

“Nothing special,” Zane said. “You get everything you need?”

“I do fine,” Charlie said. “What were you thinking to find here?”

Zane pulled out a CommBundle and a gadget that looked like a copper feather. “Thought I might help with your sign.”

“I have nothing to offer,” Charlie said.

“I didn’t expect,” Zane said. “You’re an Original.”

“Didn’t know that counted for anything these days,” Charlie said.

“Does to me,” Zane said. “Rufus should have let you speak. May I?” He shook out the sign to examine it. “Just a reprogram?”

“I guess,” Charlie said. “You licensed?”

Zane chuckled. “Depends on what you mean by licensed.”

“Not gonna stop you,” Charlie said.

Zane ran his fingers around the sign’s edges and squeezed the margins.

“How do you know all this?” Charlie asked.

Zane scratched the seam with the copper feather. He yanked a strip of material from the corner until the synthflex snapped. The sign beeped softly, then made a vaporish whine as its holo sequence displayed the words: Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Plank House.

“That’s it?” Charlie said.

“It was easy,” Zane said.

Charlie tacked the sign to the wall and admired the repeating holo. “What else do you do?”

Zane laughed. “I can show you a few tricks. Where’s your CommBundle?”

Charlie dug around in the storage bin beneath the sleeping pod until he found the gray slab.

Zane grabbed it, astonished at the weight. “Wow, this must be one of the first ones made. It works?”

“Not very well,” Charlie said.

“Why don’t you request a new one?”

Charlie exhaled long and slow. “Were it only so simple. I don’t need the thing bad enough to trouble myself.”

“Sorry,” Zane said. “I can show you how to make life easier.”

“This whole ship was supposed to make life easier,” Charlie said. “Now the Indian who fills out the most forms, wins.”

Zane lowered his voice. “That worked for Rufus,” he said. Before Charlie could remark he added, “You sound like my auntie. She was an Original, too. She said this ship was a mistake.”

“Sounds about right,” Charlie said.

“Let me show you how this works.” Zane tapped his copper feather on the CommBundle menu. “This will let you bypass the redundant data screens.”

“Aren’t they all redundant?” Charlie said.

“Yeah,” Zane agreed. He went through a long sequence, keying in data and explaining tricks to bypass the more tiresome procedures. Charlie lost track as the screens flicked by.

“Let’s try something,” Zane said. “You ever file a complaint?”

“Bah,” Charlie said. “Spend a few hours waiting in line at the public kiosk so I can complete a sixty-seven screen form. Then I hit a wrong button and next thing you know my commodity share is modified or my living cubicle power supply is browned out. No, I don’t file complaints.”

“Let’s file a complaint against Keith, the delivery chamber clerk,” Zane said.

“I don’t know,” Charlie said, imagining mixed up medications or a relocation order sending him to an even more rundown part of the ship. “Too many things could go wrong.”

“Not if you know what you’re doing. We’ll make it so he has to do a clerk review and fill out a bunch of forms.” Zane opened a screen. “If you call it a diversity complaint they respond to it quicker.” Zane walked him through the steps.

“Now, click that red box. That’s it.”

“Is there a way to control enviro settings on this level?” Charlie asked. “Or increase my goods and services distribution? How about an upgrade to my member ranking?”

“I don’t think so, Uncle,” Zane said. He shook an imaginary ceremony disk necklace. “We’d need something to work with if you get me.”

“Sure,” Charlie said. “I guess ‘ol BigFeather’s got some tricks.”

“Oh yeah. You don’t get designated Ceremonial Leader without some fancy dancing,” Zane said. “What’s an Orbiting Plank House anyway?”

“Ah,” Charlie said. “The plank house is a show of my real Earth treasures. In my case, real means the genuine article.”

“You have real Earth things?” Zane said, his eyes eager. “Like what? Let me see.”

“Most of it’s at the plank house,” Charlie said. “I got this.” He pulled something from his pocket.

“Wow,” Zane said.

“It’s a river rock,” Charlie said. “From home.”

“Can I touch it?” Zane asked.

“’Course,” Charlie said, setting it in Zane’s hand. “If you hold it to your cheek you can feel where the sun shone on it.”

Zane pressed the stone to his face.

“Feel it?” Charlie said.

“I don’t,” Zane said.

“Sometimes I feel bad for you kids born out here,” Charlie said.


Charlie waited for the cultural celebration to begin. He stood in the crush of vendors, his sign folded in his arms. Rufus took his place at the front, staggering under the weight of an enormous simu-feather headdress. He carried a tall walking stick wrapped with ceremonial disks and animal tails. A government officials’ color guard followed him down the ramp to the ceremony hall and up to the stage. The tourists sat crammed in spectator racks circling the hall.

Next to Charlie, two women advertised what they called authentic leather moccasins. Others offered genuine feathered jewelry and carved bone. Someone else promoted a venison stew that Charlie knew didn’t have anything but mock venison in it. Authentic had its own meaning in space.

A chorus of Indian children singing the blended indigenous peoples’ anthem filed down the ramp and made a circle around Rufus. He pushed the headdress out of his eyes. The children finished and the honored guests marched in. Zane walked with them, ropes of shiny beads and fabricated tokens around his neck.

A whistle blew and the vendors surged forward. Beebe and Tansy BigFeather led the way, carrying a shiny new sign advertising one of those simulated traditional hunting trips that were tricky to run and required so many permits and authorizations it was near impossible for regular folks to offer.

Charlie unfolded his sign as he inched down the ramp. He tried to hold it high enough for tourists to see. He was swept along with the throng; all the vendors rushed for the same advantage. His heart ramped up for a couple of hot beats when he spotted the permit checker. He wasn’t sure if Zane’s fiddling could be detected or what the punishment might be if he were caught.

An elbow jabbed into his back and he stumbled.

“Watch it,” he said.

The vendors squeezed down the narrow ramp to the stage. The sign grew slippery in Charlie’s hands. The mob behind him pushed harder.

“Whoa there,” he called. His foot snagged on the banner as it dragged on the floor. Someone knocked him from behind and this time he fell. The sign tore from his grip.

A foot thumped against his ribs and someone tripped over him and swore. He rolled to the side and used a shaky hand to grasp the handrail. The blinking letters of his sign glimmered under the marching vendors’ feet.

He flashed to a long forgotten memory of the day he’d come aboard this ship. A mass of Indians squeezed through shiny new boarding channels. They were taking Indian Country into space.

At last the procession ended. He grabbed his sign from the floor and joined the others. Rufus performed the invocation. For a full hour his arms rose into the air and lowered back down, hands facing the thick strands of beads and shells decorating his chest-plate. He warbled in an unknown language. With a little confidence a man could get away with anything.

The children moved in a slow circle around the stage, humming a low tune. Zane stepped forward and took a bowl from Rufus’s hands and shook an invisible substance around the circle of spectators. Rufus ended with a deep bow. The tourists applauded.

“Make room. Original here,” Charlie said. He dashed sideways through the crowd, rough with his elbows after the earlier tumble. He intended to find a good spot to post his sign. It wasn’t too late to attract visitors. He found a prime location in the central walkway and fastened the sign to the wall.

He’d no sooner finished when a municipal enforcement worker flagged him. Charlie sucked in his breath.

“You got a central placement authorization?” The worker flipped over a corner of the sign. Charlie had to turn his face away so it wouldn’t slap him.

“I got my permit,” Charlie said.

“Nope, no authorization.” He yanked Charlie’s sign down. “Let’s see your sign permit.”

Charlie saw no point in protesting. The other vendors crowded the area, jostling each other to hang their signs. Charlie handed over his permit.

The worker glanced from the permit to the sign. “This looks okay. You just need a placement authorization.”

“Why so many rules?” Charlie asked.

“Same for you as everybody else,” the worker said. “You can post it and reopen your business as soon as you get authority.” The man shook his thumb over his shoulder. “Get it at the delivery chamber.”

As Charlie crossed the ceremonial hall, Rufus BigFeather and his daughters posed for photos with the tourists. The line stretched across the room.


Charlie keyed in his code at the plank house, then stooped through the round door cut into a thick slab of simulated cedar. A few taps on a tiny console and the plank house filled with warm light, as if the sun shone outside. The sound module stuttered until he slapped his hand against the wall. Then the quiet slush of a river rushing over rocks mixed with the high-pitched buzz of insects.

He took out his CommBundle and pulled up the sign-in page. He tried to log into the delivery docket using the trick Zane had showed him but couldn’t get past the blinking fields on the first screen. He shoved it aside.

Charlie dampened a rag with cedar-scented wash and carefully wiped down the interior walls. His artifacts were spread throughout the room. He dusted each item and repositioned it for display. He had an elk horn spoon his grandfather had made and a scrap of fish net. He’d ruined the original net shortly after he’d boarded the ship when he’d tried to sleep in it like a hammock. He’d thrown the bits away not understanding how rare those items would become. He had a dusty basket of acorns. His favorite item was a cube of sealed glastec filled with water and grit from the river that ran through his home place. His grandmother had taken him to collect it. The sun had beat down hot overhead and he’d leaned forward to dip the container into the hazy green water. The river had a particular smell, but even when he closed his eyes he couldn’t quite conjure the memory. That smell had been lost in a fog of government disinfectant and people living in a certain kind of confinement.

The entrance whistle sounded and for a foolish second he thought it might be the government clerk with his placement authorization.

“Zane,” Charlie said, relieved to see him. “You saw what happened?”

“Yeah, we got a problem,” Zane said, fast and breathless.

“No one said nothing about placement,” Charlie said. “How are the tourists going to find me? Can we get the authorization?”

“What? Maybe,” Zane said. “First we gotta deal with that complaint we did. It triggered a diversity audit.”

“I thought that’s what we wanted,” Charlie said.

“A diversity audit of the tribal government,” Zane said. “Rufus.”

“What’s wrong with Rufus?” Charlie asked.

“You know,” Zane said. “We, uh, were creative with his background.”

“So he is made-up?”

“Not completely,” Zane said. “Look. He’s our leader. He’s recognized in the system. If they reclassify his status, who knows what would happen.”

“What am I supposed to do?” A sick feeling that Charlie couldn’t quite place settled behind his heart.

The entrance beeped again and Rufus’s head appeared in the round doorway.

“Oh good,” Rufus said. He crawled into the plank house. The low entrance almost swept off his headdress.

“Hey, Chief,” Zane said. “I’d like to introduce you to one of our honored Originals.”

“You going to do it?” Rufus asked. He was pink around the jowls as if he’d been running in a warm place. “It’s a nice-looking teepee.”

“It’s not a teepee,” Charlie said.

Rufus rubbed his hands up and down a plank wall. “I need a special ceremony,” he said. He sniffed his hands. “This is good.”

“You think I got a special ceremony?” Charlie asked.

“I meant you could cook something up,” Rufus said.

By this time Zane had noticed Charlie’s artifacts. He studied a circular headpiece decorated with real bird feathers. Time had grayed the tips but they still looked like something that used to be alive. “Could we use this?” he asked.

“Perhaps,” Charlie said, still not certain what they expected.

“How about this?” Zane asked. He used two hands to hold a shiny obsidian blade.

“It is a ritual item,” Charlie agreed.

“What do you do with it?” Rufus asked.

“I polish it with my tears,” Charlie said. He took it from Zane and rubbed it with his sleeve.

“That part of the ceremony?” Rufus reached for it but Charlie put it back on the ledge.

“I’ve never seen so many Earth things,” Zane said.

“I know it,” Charlie said. “We come from a real place. I want people to see.”

“Let me talk for a minute,” Rufus said.

“Go ahead,” Zane said. He picked up a black and white photo of an Indian child with a dog.

“Some jackass called for a diversity audit,” Rufus said. “The government is sending an official. I think a little teepee dance and some whoo-whoo,” he wiggled his fingers next to his ears, “and I can get them off my back.”

Charlie wondered what passed for whoo-whoo to someone like Rufus.

“I can guess what you’re thinking,” Rufus said.

“I don’t think you can,” Charlie said.

“Zane thinks association with an Original would look good,” Rufus said.

“And you’d be compensated,” Zane said.

“Right.” Rufus fumbled for a synth animal-skin pouch hanging at his waist. The bundle had black and white zebra stripes but Charlie didn’t think anything could be achieved at this point by calling him out for non-traditional accessories.

Rufus held out his hand. “Commodity tokens?”

Charlie made a face.

Rufus kept digging. “Travel chips?”

“I’m too old to get back to the only place I’d want to go,” Charlie said.

Rufus unwound a beaded waist-tie with red-feathers dangling off either end and presented it with both hands.

“Not bad for a fake,” Charlie said. He tied the thing around his waist.

“We settled?” Rufus said.

“Leaders are supposed to look out for their elders,” Charlie said.

“He needs a placement authorization,” Zane said.

“Shoot, I can do that,” Rufus said. “I’ll get you a good placement. Did you see what I did for Tansy and Beebe?” A drop of sweat came out from the edge of his headdress and rolled down his cheek.

“I’ll do it,” Charlie said. He fingered a rope of ceremony disks around Rufus’s neck. “These are nice.”

“These are worth something.” Rufus pushed Charlie’s hand away.

Charlie started to say something but Zane shook his head ever so slightly. “C’mon, Chief,” he said. “This is a great honor from one of our Earth elders.”

Rufus sighed and pulled the necklaces over his head. “If that’s what it takes.” The strands tangled and pulled out a wad of hair as it came off. Rufus didn’t seem to notice.

Zane took the disks and untangled the strands.

“Zane will work out the authorization,” Rufus said. “I’ll bring the officials and my family back here.”

“Sure thing, Cousin,” Charlie said.

He waited for Rufus to leave.

“Get me your CommBundle,” Zane said. “We’ll key in a correction ticket. We can push it through faster than a new request. I’ll go to the delivery chamber and have the authorization today.”

Charlie put on the ceremonial disks. The weight of them felt good around his neck. “I like these,” he said.

“They look good on you,” Zane said. “Waist tie, too. We should get you more regalia.”

“You can do that?” Charlie said.

“Sure,” Zane said. “Thanks to Rufus I have connections you wouldn’t believe. Come help me with the correction ticket.”

“Forget that,” Charlie said. “I want you to help me become Ceremonial Leader.”

Zane laughed, “But we already got one, Uncle. Come on, bring me the permit.” He worked the CommBundle quickly, his fingers sweeping over the smooth surface.

Charlie didn’t move.

Zane stopped. “You’re not kidding.” For a long moment the only sound was the piped-in insect hum.

Charlie wasn’t sure if he was seeing alarm or curiosity. “We’ll do it for the officials when Rufus gets here. The whoo-whoo dance. We’ll say it’s to transfer the Ceremonial power.”

“I don’t know,” Zane said.

“We’ll say Rufus recognizes the audit results and wants to see an Original in his role. You can help me with the—” Charlie waved at the CommBundle, “—government part.”

Zane was stirred up but Charlie couldn’t tell which way he was falling.

“Is it money?” Charlie asked. “You need to be paid to wait in those long lines? So you can buy your fancy shoes?”

Zane dropped his gaze. “It’s not just that,” he said. “It takes something to work the lines.”

“More than this?” Charlie rattled the ceremony disks.

“Maybe,” Zane said. “Every cycle you have to reapply for your classification, renew permits for counseling and spiritual practice. There’s protocol authorization, tax forms—”

“But once we’re in, there’s a chance to do some fancy dancing of our own, right?”

Zane let the CommBundle slide out of his hands. He slowly released his breath. “What about Rufus?” he said at last.

“What about me?” Charlie said.

“You are worthy,” Zane said carefully, “but Rufus and I have an arrangement.”

The entrance chimed. Charlie didn’t have much time.

“I’m the Original,” he said. “Make an arrangement with me. Quick, take your shirt off. Shoes too.”

Zane didn’t move until Charlie brought over the feather-tipped headpiece. “The red bits are from a woodpecker,” he said.

Zane peeled off his shirt and kicked his shoes into a corner. He put the headpiece on. “Like this?”

“Good,” Charlie said. He stripped his shirt off, too. He brought Zane the obsidian blade and showed him how to place his hands for the ritual. “You understand the language?”

Zane shook his head.

“Listen to the words.” Charlie tapped on his heart. “You’ll get it. Keep your eye on me.”

Rufus and the others filed into the room.

“Welcome to my plank house,” Charlie said. “Let me tell you how this is going to go.”

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