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Friday, July 20, 2012

Burger Shack Story #8

Where Home Is©

Joe was okay for a long time. Then he was pretty good for a while. After that he didn’t know. And then--.

“You are Americano,” his parents always told him. “Born here. You belong.” They were saying that they didn’t belong the way he did, although they were the ones, he always thought when they said this, who had made him American by coming here.

The years the family moved from place to place were okay for José Felipe, the first-born. He was young and knew no other life, and he was always with his parents, even if they were all sleeping in their old Chevy, caught between asparagus and cherries. Later on, as summer merged into fall, the older children had to be in school for most of the day, and in asparagus season, early spring, the parents sometimes had to pick in a cold rain, bent over even on sunny days, even when wagons were brought in and the workers no longer had to walk the rows, so in asparagus season the whole family was very tired and often cranky by the end of the day, but still they were together and happy about that.

Then there were cherries. Compared to asparagus, cherries were a vacation. Joe’s parents worked cherry harvest for the same family year after year, along with other long-time friends. The kids were out of school, their housing was simple but clean, with several cabins that formed a kind of temporary village for the group of them, and at the end of the day everyone, all ages, piled into an old school bus the orchard family kept around the place, all the migrant families heading down a sandy, tree-lined two-track to the lake. They had a picnic supper on the beach, with little children running in and out of the water, squealing and laughing, and fathers squatting at the water line, smoking cigarettes and holding toddlers by the hand while mothers made fresh tortillas over fires of driftwood. No one was ever too tired for an evening on the beach. They stayed until the stars came out and sleepy children had to be carried back to the bus.

Apples in the fall weren’t as joyous as summer cherries—again, the kids had to be in school except for weekends--but the work was still better than picking field crops. Apple weather might be cold, sometimes whole days of drizzling rain, but you were standing, either reaching up from the ground or out from a ladder. No bending or stooping. You wore the bag slung in front of you, filled it, emptied it into a tall wooden box. Pickers often sang as they worked, music carrying them like a boat through the cold, crisp mornings, their hands in constant motion, double- and triple-timing the beat. From high on the ladder, you could look way down the rows and see other pickers on other ladders and, between the trees, rows of apple boxes, four feet high, wooden sides dark from years of exposure to the weather. When all the boxes in a row were full, the crew moved to the next row. Later another crew, not as fast or skilled, maybe young Anglos who had dropped out of school or slightly older ones who didn’t have regular jobs, for whatever reason, and were doing this to make a few weeks’ pay, might pass through the trees to pick the remaining good fruit, and after that some of the growers allowed gleaners to come in (others didn’t), but Joe’s family and their friends had nothing to do with the apples after the first picking. They were the pros.

Those years growing up hadn’t always been easy, but they had been okay, especially the Michigan summers. The family shared good memories from that time.

Afterward, too, when his parents settled down in one place with steady work, life was pretty good for several years. Home was only a rented trailer in a dilapidated older trailer park, but they had an address and could get mail from their relatives in Mexico without waiting for it to catch up with them on the road. They had a shade tree on one side of the trailer and sun for growing his parents’ vegetables and flowers on the other side. All the kids, in school now from September to June without a change of residence, started getting better grades.

“But if anything happen to us,” his mother still said at least once a week, fixing her gaze on Joe as if to imprint her instructions directly on his brain, “any time, you go to Tia Melita. You go right to her—nowhere else! Entiendes?”

His aunt and uncle ran a Mexican restaurant in the two front rooms (with seasonal seating on the porch) of a one-story building that had originally been a bungalow before the street went commercial. They owned the building and lived in the back and were a first-generation American success story, naturalized citizens with their own business. Joe’s grandmother from Mexico lived with them, so Tía
 Melita’s husband, though not a blood relative, held the position of unofficial patriarch, and Joe’s mother was so grateful to her brother-in-law for bringing the old lady across the border that she believed he and his wife, her beloved sister, could solve any problem.

“Ma, I know. You been telling me that my whole life.”

“I don’t want you forget.” She stroked his cheek lightly with her fingertips, where signs of incipient beard brought tears to her eyes. His eyes were liquid brown, his hair curly, springing blue-black. So handsome! He was so beautiful she could not stop being afraid for him, her perfect first-born.

“You listen to your mother,” his father added, coming through the screen door, hearing the familiar exchange and adding his own regular emphasis. He was bringing in tomatoes and peppers from his garden so Joe’s mother could make fresh salsa. Joe rolled his eyes and shook his head, smiling at the same time. They had always presented a united front, his parents. He felt close to them, tied tight, and safe in their presence, yet the increasing protectiveness he also felt for them was becoming its own kind of distance. As he grew older and taller, they seemed to diminish in size.

He was in high school now and caught an old yellow bus out by the highway. On his first morning at the bus stop three other Mexican boys appeared from farther up the road, walking with a rolling gait as if moving to music. One of them, walking slightly ahead of the other two, was tall and handsome, despite an ugly scar along his jawbone. He stopped in front of Joe, looked him up and down and asked cryptically, “You wid us?” Joe read the unspoken rest of the question as, or against us, and jerked his chin upward, affirmatively. When the bus came, they all got on together. He told himself they weren’t a gang. Not having to get on the bus alone, being able to walk into a big, new, strange high school with friends, amigos, instead of by himself—for that Joe was grateful, and if Anglo kids drew back when they passed by, if teachers cast hard, suspicious looks in their direction, that was not a high price to pay for friends.

His days fell into a new routine, starting with his friends at the bus stop. At the end of the ride, he was part of their scene in front of the school doors, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as they did, the others joking and laughing and punching each other in the arms while he remained the quiet one. Miguel, the boy with the scar, didn’t push him to talk after Joe answered a few questions that first day—where he lived, where the family came from, where his parents worked. Maybe Miguel needed a quiet one in the group to set off his own leadership. During the day Joe was on his own in classes—English, social studies, environmental studies, algebra and physical education. He kept a low profile and got by. 

After school and the bus ride back to the trailer park, where he parted from his friends, he took care of his brothers and sisters. He went to meet them in front of their grade school and shepherded them home for after-school snacks and homework. Evenings the whole family was together, as they had always been. Saturdays Joe worked with his father on a landscaping crew, and on Sunday the family went to mass and to Tia Melita’s afterward, the restaurant, closed to the public on Sundays, their family gathering place.

It was on a Monday that this simple world flew unexpectedly out of its familiar orbit. The morning, the bus, school—all were as usual—but then at the elementary school, when a river of little kids streamed out at the end of the day, his brothers and sisters did not appear. Not one of them. His impulse was to go inside to search their classrooms, but something held him back. Instead he waited where he always waited for them, on the other side of the street, far enough away from the crossing guard that he didn’t have to speak to her. This time she kept glancing at him, anyway, and her glances increased his anxiety. He edged farther down the sidewalk. When he saw two men in suits come out the door behind the last of the children, he turned and ran.

Tia Melita’s was bright and busy. He could see that even from a distance, but creeping closer to peer into the windows he saw no sign of his brothers and sisters, neither in the public rooms in front nor through the gauzy window curtains in his aunt and uncle’s living room in back, a room crowded with chairs but empty and quiet during their working day. But those men—they would come here, too, Joe felt sure, just as they would go to the trailer park, if they hadn’t already.

Heart pounding as he turned away, this time Joe forced his feet not to run. Outside the tabaquería on the corner, he saw Miguel and the others. Miguel tossed his head up and back in a cool, wordless greeting. Joe acknowledged but signaled that he had to keep moving. The three boys turned away, ostentatiously granting him, for now, the privacy of his decision.

Without a plan but pulled toward home, he forged a quiet, cautious, meandering but steady trail through a series of streets and diverse neighborhoods, making his way back to the highway, to the vicinity of the trailer park. For the moment, certain that his parents had been taken away, being near the place they had lived together for so long felt like the closest he could get to them. But no closer. American-born though he was, he knew better than that. If his parents had been taken away, the little children would have been taken somewhere else, and Joe, not yet eighteen, would be taken somewhere against his will as well if he didn’t disappear into the cracks for a few months.

He remembered that behind Rocket’s Burger Shack there was a tall board fence, and behind that was a quarter-mile strip of scraggly woods, and he made for the fence. Like the wall of a house, it blocked the wind, and he could lean against it. He could hear cars and voices from Rocket’s parking lot, but he was safely hidden. Two nights he stayed there. The first night, after Rocket’s closed and the manager finally locked up and drove away, leaving the place in darkness, Joe loosened a board in the fence and made his way to the dumpster. Sure enough, plenty of take-out bags held unfinished sandwiches and errant French fries. He tried not to think of the unknown hands and mouths that had touched the food and tried not to think of the food itself as garbage. There was a stray dog crouched underneath the dumpster, and Joe, still without a plan, coaxed the dog back through the fence with him for warmth and company.

The third night he could wait no longer. Ordering the little dog to stay, he made his way by stealth to the family trailer, letting himself in with his key. He found his father’s flashlight on the floor behind the sofa, where it was always kept, and by its light saw that a box of papers and documents had been dumped upside-down on the carpet. Moving warily through the rooms, keeping the narrow beam away from windows, he was not surprised to find other evidence that his family was gone: coats and toothbrushes missing; his sisters’ dolls not on their beds; a smell of strangers in the small, close rooms. Joe held his own wrist to his nose and smelled stale grease. Even his own body no longer smelled familiar to him. Though not surprised, he felt cold and faintly nauseated by the odor. Hurrying to the bathroom, he stripped off the shirt he had worn for three days, rinsed his mouth with water and then Listerine, scrubbed underneath his arms, and finally grabbed one of his father’s shirts from a doorknob. He thrust his arms through the sleeves and buttoned the shirt as fast as his fingers could move, inhaling deeply.

Back in the kitchen he stood still, waiting to know what to do next, and a picture came unbidden into his head. The image was of a small, palm-sized, folded manila envelope tucked inside the sugar canister. In that envelope his mother kept her key to the largest of the houses she cleaned, one she would not have cleaned on the day she disappeared because it was her Tuesday-Friday job. The house was in a spacious neighborhood behind a wall, guarded by a gate, but Joe had worked in the neighborhood on Saturdays with the landscaping crew and knew another way in, through the vacant woods and over the back wall. He had even been inside once when his mother was at work. On the heels of the picture of the key envelope in his mind came a different picture: beautiful, open rooms with cream-colored walls and brown leather chairs, piles of books waiting patiently on tables, and enormous tropical plants, not a single one of which would have fit into his family’s little trailer. Without thinking the word, ‘sanctuary’ was the feeling he craved as he slid the key into the back pocket of his jeans. It would be dawn soon.

He eased out the door of the trailer into the dark, but before he could take another step, wary for a reason he could not immediately identify, his arm was twisted behind his back and a hand clapped over his mouth, and he recognized the voice even though it was held down to a sharp, hissing whisper. “What’s up, my brother?” Miguel asked, turning him loose.

The other two boys, Diego and Eduardo, stepped forward from behind the trunk of the big shade tree Joe’s brothers and sisters loved to play beneath in all seasons of the year.

“You can’t stay here,” Miguel said flatly. “So what is your plan, my brother?”

Miguel had never before called Joe “my brother” or come to his home, and the hairs on the back of Joe’s neck prickled, and sharp perspiration started up in his armpits, though he could not have said why. It was too dark to see faces clearly, but Joe felt Ed and Diego grinning.

“He got a plan,” Miguel whispered confidently, and the others echoed “Yeah” in their own whispers, and Miguel gave the order, “Les’ move out now where we can talk,” and the four of them slid down the dark, narrow street, Joe with his heart in his mouth, two keys in the pocket of his jeans, and no semblance in his mind of any kind of plan at all. 


silly rabbit said...

Okay, you got me hooked! Now I want to hear more please.

P. J. Grath said...

Silly Rabbit, I'm glad dmarks sent you over. Thanks for reading. Did you find the rest of the stories, the seven preceding this one? Right under the puppy in the chair at the top of the screen, under PAGES, you will see Burger Shack Story Cycle, and that's where links to the earlier stories can be found. This is a 10-story cycle, so there are only two more to go, and you won't want to read the tenth without having read all nine that lead up to it.

dmarks said...

I need to catch up too. Or is that ketchup?

P. J. Grath said...

Hold the mustard--full steam ahead!

Kathy said...

You may just want to send these stories toward publication, Pamela. (Just a little plan.)

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, I appreciate the encouragement, but by themselves these stories would make, in my opinion, a pretty skinny book, and I don't seem to have the motivation to send them off one by one to literary magazines (despite the urging of friends). Putting this cycle of stories on my blog is a test balloon. What the future holds is still shrouded in mystery. But thanks for reading!

Dawn said...

I'm behind. Again. I think I will read all 10 at once...

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, you're scaring me!!!

P. J. Grath said...

Muchas gracias to Laurita for corrections to my Spanish. Now, if anyone knows where there is an upside-down question mark in Word, let me know, will you?