Shining Star

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But she wanted to believe. She wanted to feel the strength and serenity she had heard so much about. So she prayed. She prayed a lot.

When she was thirteen, Marlene's stepdad went on a three-day drunk, and her mom soon followed. Marlene was left alone in the house with her younger siblings. Pretty soon, the food ran out. When her six-month-old brother began to cry, Marlene panicked. There wasn't even flour in the cupboards.

"I have to gather food," she prayed. "Help me."

A friend agreed to watch the children while Marlene walked two miles to the Norfolk Safeway, stopping along the way to oil her leg braces. At the store, she filled the cart with food her parents might buy: pork chops, chicken, bread, bananas, milk. She even added a bag of candy. Then she went up to the front door of the Safeway.

"Please Jesus, help me with what I have to do."

She wheeled the cart past the clerks and out of the store -- and no one paid attention. She wheeled the cart down Main Street, and still no one paid attention. She wheeled the cart past a police car, and the officer didn't even look up. She wheeled the cart all the way home, put away the groceries, fed her siblings and stashed the cart in a nearby alley. Then she opened the sack of candy and waited.

Pretty soon, her mom came home. She peeked in the cupboards, assumed her husband had bought groceries, and then passed out. Her stepdad came home. He peeked in the cupboards, assumed his wife had bought groceries, and then passed out himself.

No one said a word.

Marlene didn't get hit, her candy-loving siblings didn't tell, and everyone ate well.

Maybe it was Jesus. Marlene didn't know. But someone had watched over her.

Marlene was luckier than many Native American women. She made it all the way to 21 without using alcohol or drugs.

She'd been forbidden by her mom to date Dakota boys because they drank too much. But in high school, she was too busy studying and working part-time at an egg-processing plant to date much. After high school, she'd married her childhood heartthrob (a white guy, the brother of her best friend) and quickly had three sons. When the kids were old enough, she got a good job and started going to school for a degree in social work. At that time in her life, she didn't need to get high and she didn't want to.

But then her husband started hitting the bottle. In 1976, after eight years of marriage, she divorced him. Unable to make both ends meet, Marlene and the boys returned to the Santee reservation to live with her mom's family.

Not long after that, she got sucked in. Black Jack and coke. Bathtub speed. Want ads, unemployment lines, general-assistance checks. Selling pot. Hanging out.

By 1984, Marlene knew she had to get out. She wanted her boys to know a life other than welfare and hangovers. She dreamed of Denver, this cultural crossroads, this center of urban Indians, this land of opportunity.

When people left the reservation, Denver is where they came. There were lots of Sioux here, and Navajo, too, as well as members of other tribes. Some had been brought here during the '50s relocation and assimilation programs; others came for work. As a result, Denver had become the unofficial capital of Indian Country.

Marlene loaded up her orange Dodge van and rumbled into town with visions of cleaning up and starting anew. Instead, she hunkered down with her boys for four months in the parking lots of Holiday Inns and the campgrounds of Estes Park.

She did find work, though -- as a bartender on East Colfax and, later, as a secretary in a finance office. She also found an apartment, made friends, got her kids in school and even planned to finish her bachelor's degree. Then a guy approached her one night at the tavern. She was dog tired, and it showed.

"Lemme show you something," he said.

He poured two lines of white powder on top of the bar. Then he rolled a dollar bill into a tight straw and told Marlene to hold it to her nose and take a snort.

She liked it.

She liked it a lot.

That powder gave her more energy than a pot of coffee. It gave her a nice little buzz, too. Whenever she did it, she felt like cleaning her whole apartment.

Then she lost her day job. Then she lost her night job. Then she started leaving her boys with whoever wanted them. She started dealing. She started living with dealers. She started believing in one thing, and one thing only: her next hit.

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Harrison Fletcher