Honestly Kid

by Daniel Damkoehler

 

Archive for September, 2006

The Boy With Strong Hands

Friday, September 29th, 2006

The first sea­son he picked black­ber­ries he was eight years old. He worked hard and talked lit­tle. He want­ed the farmer to know he was seri­ous and use­ful, not like most of the old­er, white kids who laughed and ate as many berries as they boxed. He decid­ed to be like his old­er broth­ers who picked more berries, faster than any­one except the most dili­gent women whose hands seemed nev­er to grow tired and didn’t seem to notice the scratch of the thorns and branch­es. Women like his moth­er, who did not help their sons as they picked, only smiled occa­sion­al­ly and told them to keep work­ing if they passed them car­ry­ing box­es to the end of a row.

The faster you pick, the more they pay. And they always notice when they pay.” His broth­er Emiliano told him. His third sea­son, jefe and the farmer both noticed the boy with strong hands. He picked fast and nev­er over loaded his box­es, keep­ing the best berries on the top. Jefe asked him to fill in on a crew of grape pick­ers, then work pick­ing a late field of straw­ber­ries, and then more grapes.

By summer’s end he had earned almost as much mon­ey as Emiliano. His moth­er cried when his father said, “Gabriel’s becom­ing a man already.”

No. He should be a boy a while longer.”

Why? He’ll only get into trou­ble like we did. More work, less trou­ble.” Emiliano had told jefe that Gabriel would work this fall.

No more work this sea­son. Play soc­cer. Go have fun. And use your mon­ey for new clothes.”

Gabriel reached across the small old kitchen table to put his hand over his mother’s. “I want to work, mama. Maybe we can stay here in this house anoth­er year.”

His father smiled at him. “We will be here more than one year. Jose has a good job here. His boss owns this house. He wants us to stay. He has work for me, some­day he may have work for you too.” Jose, his eldest broth­er, had worked for Trot Sneed for the last two and a half years. Earlier this sum­mer, Jose had moved his fam­i­ly to this old house, deep in the peach orchards.

And you go to school this year.”

No, mama.” Emiliano said it more quick­ly than he meant to.

Yes, you bring him there. And tell jefe that he’s going to learn some things. Yes, I know what you told him, Emiliano. Don’t let your broth­er be your lit­tle jefe, Gabriel.”

Okay.” Gabriel sat back in his chair, a lit­tle ner­vous about not work­ing, about the American kids, and about going back to school. “When does it start?”

And his moth­er smiled, reach­ing to take his small strong hands in hers. With new tears bring­ing light to her dark eyes, she said, “Mi bien chico. Mi muy muy bien mucha­cho.

Before The County Arrived

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

After Mr. Sneed goes inside, Hernandez takes a new pack­age of yel­low crime scene tape from his car and marks a large rec­tan­gle around the body, loop­ing the tape around the thick branch­es of mature peach trees on one side of the dirt road and the green tips of the almond saplings on the oth­er. Then he paces along the road oppo­site the body, try­ing to deci­pher the fresh­est tire tracks. It looks to him as though a truck stopped next to where the body lays. He walks around the body, care­ful­ly look­ing for foot­prints oth­er than his own or Mr. Sneed’s which come no clos­er than ten feet. He finds none. In fact, it looks to him as though some­one has inten­tion­al­ly wiped the ground clean around the body, maybe with a broom or piece of heavy cloth.

He looks more close­ly at the small body, both arms out stretched, face buried in its lap, legs and knees tucked under as though the boy had been kneel­ing. He can see only the ends of what must be one long deep slice across the boy’s throat, but even with­out mov­ing the body he knows that the clothes have no blood on them. The killing has tak­en place some­where else and then the boy brought here and arranged this way. He takes pic­tures of all this until his stom­ach turns.

He stands upright and takes a few steps back away from the body, tak­ing in what was still cool of the morn­ing air, look­ing around this spot. Why here? Then he sees some­thing in the mature orchard. Nothing mov­ing. Something in one of the peach trees. Nothing reflec­tive. Just some­thing out of place. He takes a step for­ward to find the right tree and bring it into focus. Two cars come up the dri­ve­way and turn down the road. They will stop at the yel­low taped perime­ter, but he needs to greet them. He’s the offi­cer on the scene. What is he see­ing? Maybe noth­ing. Probably noth­ing. He can’t even name it. It’s sim­ply wrong. A flaw in the fab­ric of this real­i­ty. He takes anoth­er step towards the orchard but in the cor­ner of his eye the first unmarked car from the coun­ty has stopped. Men are get­ting out. If he looks away he’ll for­get this prob­a­bly unnamed detail, this feel­ing of some­thing escap­ing him, like a road sign passed too quick­ly to read or the name of a child­hood friend. Someone speaks and he turns.

Mrs. Sneed is offer­ing the men cof­fee. She car­ries a sil­ver per­co­la­tor pot in one hand and sty­ro­foam cups in the oth­er. She won’t move more than a few steps past her back porch. Hernandez glances back at the tree, looks down at his feet to see where he is stand­ing. Why is he here? Nothing. Just the stress of the sit­u­a­tion or some­thing. He turns the dig­i­tal cam­era off and goes to greet the coun­ty homi­cide inves­ti­ga­tion team.

William’s Knot

Monday, September 25th, 2006

He had returned to Brenlee, almost a year ago, to an ambu­lance and police car in front of his parent’s house. On the porch, a young neigh­bor woman saw him and said, “Oh, she was so excit­ed about you com­ing this week,” burst into tears, and ran home. Inside, para­medics quick­ly and com­pe­tent­ly ripped open pack­ages, drew meds, and insert­ed tubes and nee­dles into his mother’s body where it lay, awk­ward­ly stretched out on the liv­ing room floor between the tele­vi­sion and the cof­fee table. He looked back at his rental car parked in the street and felt guilty that he had stopped at that road­side fruit stand on his way from the air­port. His moth­er could not see him there and prob­a­bly could not hear him either.

William only rec­og­nized Tamra, one of the emer­gency work­ers on the scene, when she saw him and said, “Billy?” She had been hold­ing his mother’s hand and try­ing to stay out of the way of the para­medics. “Come here.”

He went to her and she pulled his hand down to his mother’s. A moment lat­er one of the para­medics threw some­thing on the floor in defeat. The two men looked at each oth­er, dis­ap­point­ed and, final­ly notic­ing Billy, a bit embar­rassed. Tamra looked at Billy and swal­lowed, he knew that she had sud­den­ly become aware of the thin brass cross hang­ing on the wall behind him, the Bible on the end table near his mother’s favorite chair, and all the oth­er church para­phena­lia lay­ing about the house. He felt bad for her. She wouldn’t know what to say. She would say some­thing regret­table. She did.

She’s mak­ing her way to heav­en, Billy.”

Heaven? He want­ed to smile, pat her lit­tle light brown head and tell her heaven’s a fairy­tale. The one you think you know, any­way. At best, the only bit of us that makes it to eter­ni­ty is some non-con­scious form of ener­gy that is sub­sumed in the uni­ver­sal whole, only to tru­ly enter the heav­ens of space upon the total destruc­tion of this plan­et dur­ing the nova or super­no­va that will be the death of our sun.

He said none of this. First, because he knew she would think he had gone crazy, and sec­ond, because he could only think of the week­end dur­ing high­school that he had spent mak­ing out with Tamra, try­ing and fail­ing to get her top off. He hoped that lat­er his ther­a­pist would tell him that this was one of many nat­ur­al and per­fect­ly under­stand­able trau­ma avoid­ance tech­niques. Meanwhile, he felt like a jerk.

Thanks, Tamra.”

She start­ed cry­ing as the para­medics cov­ered his moth­er in a sheet. She had very nice dark brown eyes, so he looked into them. He didn’t want to see his mother’s pained face again, or her limp body.

You’re cry­ing, Billy.”

He hadn’t noticed. “This sucks,” he whis­pered.

Tamra took his hand from his mother’s and tried to wrap both of her small hands around it. “I’m so sor­ry, Billy.” Forty-five min­utes lat­er she hugged him good­bye on the porch. The para­medics had dri­ven away in their small fire truck. Hernandez, the police­man on the scene, had asked a few ques­tions, scratched some things down on a form, and left. “You gonna be okay?” she asked.

He shrugged. “No. Yes. Maybe. I guess.”

Maybe I’ll look in on you, when I get off work?”

Okay.”

She wiped anoth­er tear from under his eye and said “Okay.” She joined her part­ner in the ambu­lance and they drove away with his mother’s body in the back. He was left as alone as he felt.

A year lat­er, every­where he looked in the house he still saw his moth­er and father. He had rearranged and un-dec­o­rat­ed the liv­ing room, but still, there was the din­ing room untouched, the kitchen unchanged, the bath­room unal­tered. His bed­room, for­mer­ly their mas­ter bed­room looked unrec­og­niz­able from the one they left when they died — new bed, ordered from some place with cheap Danish fur­ni­ture; a new coat of paint; a used antique-ish dress­er from a place up in the gold coun­try; and even a cou­ple of new light fix­tures. His old room he had con­vert­ed into an office — two com­put­er mon­i­tors, decent com­put­er speak­ers, a Mexican wrestling match poster, and a bul­letin board cov­ered in post­cards from friends trav­el­ing to inter­est­ing places. His brother’s room served as stor­age for all of the God and church para­phena­lia and the fur­ni­ture his wife said she want­ed. Despite all of the changes, the house still revealed images of his par­ents mov­ing through their dai­ly lives, his father sleep­ing in front of the tele­vi­sion with an open book on his stom­ach, his moth­er rush­ing around the house before church, and both of them in the kitchen cook­ing some­thing elab­o­rate and impos­si­ble to find in Brenlee.

Seeing his par­ents in the house each day only made him feel worse and worse about him­self. Maybe because it remind­ed him of the thing they most often told him, before, dur­ing, and after his abort­ed careers, lost sav­ings, and failed mar­riage. “We love you no mat­ter what” as if there was a ‘what’ in the world that might have called their love into ques­tion in the first place.

Of course, he knew the ‘what’: God. Not just God, but reli­gion too, though for them it was mere­ly God. If he didn’t believe in their God and their reli­gion, how could he know God and if he couldn’t know God, how could he get to heav­en and if he couldn’t get to heav­en, hadn’t they failed him? That was their self-pun­ish­ing and, for William, guilt-induc­ing log­ic. Absurd as it may sound to the unini­ti­at­ed, he couldn’t for­give him­self for mak­ing them feel like failed par­ents. Some days he won­dered if there were no unini­ti­at­ed. Maybe God and reli­gion for his par­ents is eth­nic iden­ti­ty for anoth­er, foot­ball or base­ball for anoth­er, or even sci­ence and rea­son for anoth­er? No, while all these parental pres­sures share some qual­i­ties in com­mon, each is its own tan­gled knot of curs­es and ben­e­fits. Lately, he was run­ning short on ben­e­fits, he had only his knot of curs­es.

Luke’s Last Friend

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

William tried to remem­ber the last time he had seen Luke. High school grad­u­a­tion? Did Luke even grad­u­ate? Yes, he remem­bered the way Luke smirked his way to the podi­um. To his own sur­prise, the smar­tass soc­cer jock had made it. And his adult life began the next day. No col­lege. Straight to work at the toma­to can­nery. William spent the first half of the sum­mer trav­el­ing with his Dad and the last six weeks before col­lege in that same can­nery. They had already fired Luke by the time they hired William.

William looked at the over­grown boy propped up on his porch and remem­bered the way Luke had always made him feel — small, wimpy, and worth­less, beat­ing him at every sport with­out try­ing, laugh­ing at the way he always tried to do the right thing, and teas­ing him for ever cry­ing. And now, he stood there expect­ing William to help him. He looked at him, wait­ed until Luke looked up and said, “I don’t owe you any­thing, Luke.”

Luke swal­lowed. He looked fright­ened, slip­ping under the sur­face and into a for­got­ten cur­rent of a wild, unfor­giv­ing riv­er. “Yeah, you do.”

Why? What for?”

Because of Tommy.”

You used to beat Tommy up. You picked on him all the time. On all of us, except when you need­ed more guys on your side of a soc­cer team.” William would nev­er admit out loud that he actu­al­ly enjoyed see­ing Luke so help­less.

But he stuck around. He didn’t have a chance with you and Greg. You guys were off doing your prep­pie thing. He thought he was my friend.”

We weren’t prep­pies.” William snapped.

Whatever.”

There aren’t any prep­pies in Brenlee.”

No shit. Took ya’ long enough to fig­ure it out.”

We just want­ed… to get out of here.” He won­dered why it mat­tered to him so much. Maybe because once he met some real prep­pies, he knew he would always be just a boy from dirt­bag Brenlee.

And now you’re back.” Luke meant and William heard, now you’re just like me. Stuck. A fail­ure in a failed place.

So what.”

We found him, Billy. And we looked at him. You and me. Not Greg or any oth­er ass­hole. We saw his body. Smelled his shit. Tried to make him move. Touched his throat.”

William saw his own hand go into that twist­ed heap of a per­son look­ing for a pulse and come up bloody. “Shuttup.”

Luke stood up from the porch rail­ing. He paced the porch and for the first time in his life didn’t tease Billy Loof for cry­ing. He stopped at the top of the steps down to the moss-stained red brick path to the dri­ve way. He turned around. “You gonna talk to him?”

What else?”

Whatever you want.”

I’ll talk to him. You just keep your shit togeth­er.”

What’s that mean?”

Don’t make me look like ass­hole.”

Too late.” Luke smiled and skip-stepped back­wards down the porch steps. “See ya’ Billy.” And quick­ly, before William could recon­sid­er, this old ghost hur­ried to his car and drove away.

See ya’.” William said into his hands.

Luke Bettis

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

First off, I didn’t do it. I don’t need none of that. I’m a screw up, but I’m not some kin­da sicko. They’re gonna say all kinds of bull­shit about my record and what­ev­er, but I didn’t do it.”

Do what?”

Luke looked up from the place where the stuc­co met the cement floor of the porch. “Nobody told you?”

Told me what?” William drank from his cof­fee mug, hop­ing it would clear his head.

This morn­ing. Early. They found a boy killed out in an orchard just out­side of town.”

Who’s orchard?”

How the fuck do I know? It was out just over that lit­tle canal where Wesley crashed his motor­cy­cle that time.” He waved his hand in the gen­er­al direc­tion of the Brenlee Irrigation District canal that used to be the north­west bor­der of town.

The twist in William’s stom­ach made his hands feel week and he tried to casu­al­ly put down his cof­fee mug before he dropped it. “A kid from around here?”

Yeah. A Mexican kid. About ten years old.” Luke looked out at William’s yard. Neither off them spoke for a long time. Then mat­ter-of-fact­ly, he said “You need to mow your lawn.”

That’s not the same place as Tommy.” A half-heart­ed dis­missal.

It’s close enough. Nothin’s that far apart around here, any­way.”

It’s dif­fer­ent.”

Luke Bettis looked at William. He want­ed to hit him. “If it was, Billy, you wouldn’t have to say so.”

William shook his head, avoid­ing Luke, “Dude. It’s dif­fer­ent.”

He took three quick steps towards William to stand right in front of him. “Look at me you god­damned col­lege edu­cat­ed ston­er. Look at me.”

William looked up at Luke.

It’s the same thing as Tommy.”

Tommy wasn’t Mexican.”

Luke growled from the back of throat, “I’ll kick your ass, Billy.”

Okay.”

Luke walked back across the porch. He leaned against the stuc­co rail­ing and crossed his arms across his chest.

What makes you think they’ll come after you?”

Same thing that made ‘em go after Mike Boone. He was an ex-con who hung around town messin’ with peo­ple.”

Your role mod­el.”

Not by choice.”

William sighed to hide a laugh.

Luke shift­ed his feet. “I know what you think, but it’s not…” He could nev­er say he didn’t feel in con­trol of his own life and maybe that was the prob­lem.

It’s dif­fer­ent now. Different cops. And I think they have to let the coun­ty deal with it.”

It don’t feel dif­fer­ent. Hell, some kid lets the air out­ta some old lady’s tires and they pick me up or come to my house.” He looked and sound­ed hon­est­ly mys­ti­fied at the idea of being anyone’s prime sus­pect. To have heard him tell it, a per­son might even have thought Luke had nev­er dipped into the till at the local liquor store. Never tried to burn down his mother’s house for the insur­ance mon­ey. Never held an elder­ly cou­ple at shot­gun point in their home in order to steal their per­son­al sav­ings and Cadillac.

So, what do you want me to do about it?”

Talk to that cop you know.”

Hernandez?”

Tell him about Tommy. Tell him I wouldn’t do that to any kid. Not after the way we found him that day.”

Old Voices, Old Ghosts

Monday, September 18th, 2006

The phone rang again. William still hadn’t fin­ished his cof­fee or shak­en the drip­py sweet flir­ta­tions of Sherri Sneed’s voice. He pulled him­self out of the wick­er porch chair and went to the phone in the liv­ing room. His father’s phone. The one he used to speak with, or rather, lis­ten to the trou­bles of the locals. William didn’t want to pick it up. It had that sound. The per­son on the oth­er end need­ed some­one and William is the only one here.

Please don’t need me,” he whis­pered as he reached to lift the hand­set. He did not say “Hello,” instead, he sim­ply lis­tened for the voice of this morning’s sec­ond caller.

After an a pause, the caller sput­tered a wor­ried sound­ing “Hello? Hello? Is there any­one there?”

Hello.” William did not imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize the voice.

Billy, is that you?”

This is Billy.” He hadn’t called him­self Billy in over 15 years.

Oh good. Sounds like we had kind of a bad con­nec­tion there. But it sounds bet­ter now.” It sound­ed like an old­er woman.

Maybe. Who’s this?”

Oh, this is Roberta Hoban.” She sound­ed as though he should remem­ber her. He did. She was his 6th grade Sunday School teacher.

The effects of this morning’s joint sud­den­ly seemed to dou­ble. He wished he had brought his cof­fee in with him — refuge in caf­feine. “Oh, Mrs. Hoban. Sorry, I didn’t rec­og­nize your voice.”

That’s fine, dear. I was call­ing to find out if we would get you in church this week­end.” He wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew sweet old Mrs. Hoban had just lied to him.

No, not this week­end Mrs. Hoban. I’m not much of a church-goer these days.”

I’m sor­ry to hear that, dear. You know, we all think of you as fam­i­ly, Billy.”

I’m glad.” His turn to lie.

We’re con­cerned about you.”

You shouldn’t be.” Through his front win­dow, William saw a bat­tered old dark blue and Bond-O grey Chrysler ‘K’ Car pull into his dri­ve way.

Well, we are, dear. You are like one of our chil­dren…” and the old lady went on wor­ry­ing over him while William watched an unwel­come ghost from his past step out of the car and walk towards his porch. Luke Bettis didn’t walk with quite the same bounce any­more, head flipped back and chest out like a roost­er. but a prison yard fit­ness stretched through his old Arrowsmith t-shirt and acid wash jeans. His long, stringy, dirty blonde hair looked arti­fi­cial­ly high­light­ed on top, but real­is­ti­cal­ly grey at the tem­ples. His face showed the wear of years of fight­ing and run­ning. He stopped and looked at William through the front screen door, knock­ing once polite­ly almost as an after­thought or to ward off a hex.

I’m sor­ry Mrs. Hoban,” William inter­rupt­ed her mono­logue, “I have a vis­i­tor. I’ll have to call you back.”

Okay, dear, but can we count on see­ing you this Sunday?”

Goodbye, Mrs. Hoban,” and he hung up the phone before she could reply. He didn’t move. “Luke.”

Hey, Billy.” Luke looked away and then down at his dirty unlaced bas­ket­ball shoes, but maybe because he moved too slow­ly or maybe because they had known one anoth­er since they were five years old William knew he had been cry­ing and might cry again now.

What’s wrong?”

I ain’t comin’ in.”

Okay.”

And I ain’t gonna shout fuck­er, so you bet­ter come out here if you wan­ta hear what I got­ta say.”

They could hear each oth­er where they stood now, but William knew that Luke sim­ply didn’t want any­thing between them as they spoke — prob­a­bly remind­ed him too much of a prison vis­it. He went out to the porch and returned to his wick­er chair.

Luke could have tak­en the oth­er chair or the porch swing, but, instead, remained on his feet, shift­ing from one foot to the oth­er, pac­ing with­in his own body. He bit off a piece of the mid­dle fin­ger­nail of his right hand. “Billy. I screwed up.”

More About William

Friday, September 15th, 2006

William couldn’t remem­ber the last time he liked him­self. Sometime dur­ing col­lege, maybe. After get­ting that first A in Anthropology. A scrap­py, bud­ding young intel­lec­tu­al. Not yet cyn­i­cal, not yet tired, mere­ly intim­i­dat­ed. No, he did not like him­self even then. He was too fear­ful, too com­pro­mis­ing, too obe­di­ent, too good. He ducked out of the bath­room mir­ror before it could do any more dam­age and head­ed to the kitchen.

He went over his plans for the day. Breakfast with a joint, hang­out on the porch read­ing an obscure Austrian writer, then maybe a nap. In the evening, maybe some work on that lat­est free­lance project. He felt wiped out. Last night had been the same as every night since he moved back. Instead of sleep­ing he dreamt, try­ing and fail­ing each night to wres­tle his way out of the inside of a knot cov­ered in black tar. He nev­er woke feel­ing rest­ed.

Joint in his mouth, lighter at hand, he popped his frozen break­fast bur­ri­to into the microwave. The phone rang. He sighed before and all the way through his “Hello.”

Billy?” It was a woman.

Yes.” He knew it couldn’t be any­one worth get­ting excit­ed about. He hadn’t met a woman like that since… well, since Clara.

Are you alright? Did I…did I wake you?”

No, no, just deep in a book, that’s all.” The joint felt fat­ter, heav­ier, even sweet­er in his hand.

This is Sherri. Sherri Sneed.” The farmer’s wife. He had worked for her hus­band back in high school, 17 years ago.

Oh, hi. How are you?”

I’m good. Thank you.”

Good.”

I bet you’re won­der­ing why I’m call­ing.”

He wasn’t. “Ah, well you got me.”

I just want­ed to let you know-” Was she try­ing to sound coy and girl­ish? “Yesterday, I ran into Miriam Ping, you know the Pings, Chinese fam­i­ly who own Harvest Market.” The biggest gro­cery store in town.

Sure, I know the Pings.” He’d grown up with their all too beau­ti­ful daugh­ters, each one an exquis­ite tor­ment to his thwart­ed ado­les­cent desires.

Well, I thought- I’m not inter­rupt­ing any­thing am I?” Sherri was flirt­ing.

No, no, just mak­ing break­fast.”

Oh, phew. Anyway…”

Yes.”

I want­ed to tell you that there’s an open­ing down at the store for a book­keep­er. I know that may not be the same as what you left behind in the city, but, you know, I thought, with your edu­ca­tion and brains you could fig­ure it right out and get things in order there in no time.”

He won­dered, when was the last time so much encour­age­ment had been so mis­di­rect­ed? Perhaps dur­ing one of the many failed cam­paigns on the Eastern Front. He rolled the joint between his thumb and fore­fin­ger. Would she would notice if he lit it now? “Are things not in order over at Harvest Market?” He asked.

Well, I don’t know… I mean…”

Maybe he could bring this to a swift con­clu­sion. “Well, thanks Sherri, for the heads up.”

Do you think you’ll apply?”

I don’t know. The com­pa­ny I was work­ing for has been keep­ing me pret­ty busy with free­lance work late­ly. I’m not much of book­keep­er. I have enough trou­ble with my own mon­ey, you know. Numbers. I don’t even bal­ance my check book.”

Oh, I know. I’m the same way. Terri does all that. I just spend. But I thought maybe you would have learned some­thing about it in col­lege.” Had Sherri gone to col­lege? A year of Junior College back in the ear­ly 80s?

No. I didn’t take any book­keep­ing class­es.”

There was a pause because that wasn’t all, was it Sherri? You called for some­thing else. You won’t stop now will you? “Well, what kinds of things did you learn there? Your moth­er always said it was a very good school you went to back east.”

I learned a lot about his­to­ry and ideas.” How else do you say it? If he said Liberal Education, she would think he sat around talk­ing about Bill Clinton and John Kerry.

Really? Like US History? That sort of thing.”

Yes, that sort of thing.”

What kind of work was that sup­posed to train you for?” She asked this sweet­ly, inno­cent­ly. Where was she while he was accu­mu­lat­ing school loans?

Oh, I guess any­thing and noth­ing.” It felt good to be hon­est. The microwave dinged. His bur­ri­to was ready.

Oh, was that your break­fast?”

Yep, microwave says it’s time to eat.”

Well, I’ll let you go. Just want­ed to let you know about that lit­tle inside info from Mrs. Ping. I’ll keep my ears open for some­thing else with less num­bers.”

Sounds good. Thanks, Sherri.”

Don’t be a stranger, Billy. Take care.”

You take care, too, Sherri.”

Bye.”

Bye.” And final­ly the phone hit its cra­dle.

Why had she real­ly called? What did she want to know? Was he being too sus­pi­cious? Paranoid? He left the joint on the counter and took his break­fast bur­ri­to out to the front porch. Looking out on the tree lined street some­thing didn’t feel quite right. None of the local retirees were out water­ing their lawns, try­ing to beat the heat. The neigh­bor kids weren’t harass­ing their dog. He tried to remem­ber the last time some­one had called him before noon. The day he came home to bury his moth­er.

Ass Kicking Eyes

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

Looking Hernandez in the eyes is tak­ing a risk. Stop there a moment too long and his dark pupils loose mor­tal­i­ty on you and kick your ass. For some it is a high cliff, oth­ers a preda­tor, and still oth­ers sim­ply that knife from their night­mares. He could nev­er intend this. He does not know why he makes peo­ple uncom­fort­able when they look into his eyes. How could he? In fact, he avoid­ed think­ing about it until his part­ner back in San Jose start­ed brag­ging about it.

So, the kid won’t open the car door for the search. Shit, I’m get­tin’ ready to go back to the car to get a crow­bar and Hernandez he just stands stock still and locks his ass kickin’ con­quis­ta­dor eyes on the kid. Three sec­onds lat­er, the lit­tle bas­tard turns off his god­damned stereo, opens the car door and hands me the keys like he was out in front of the Hilton for valet park­ing. Turns out he had a .45 next to his seat, a .38 in his sock and enough crank in the back to light up half the city.

They were great sta­tion house sto­ries, except they nev­er sur­prised any­one who knew Eduardo Hernandez. They came more as a con­so­la­tion that he had this effect on every­one. No one, until William, ever tried to fig­ure out why this was so or where that ass kick­ing look came from.

Mable Sneed Makes Breakfast

Monday, September 11th, 2006

Mable Sneed had come to appre­ci­ate her husband’s failed efforts to start his days qui­et­ly. If it wasn’t the sound of his rough breath­ing, his dress­er draw­ers open­ing and clos­ing, his foot­steps to the kitchen, the clang of the spoon against the cof­fee can, the water fill­ing the per­co­la­tor, or the scrape of a chair leg against the kitchen linoleum, then it was the screen door squeel­ing shut that woke her. She could nev­er bring her­self to tell him that all his valiant efforts to pre­serve silence and sleep were in vain. So, Mable wait­ed for Pickum before begin­ning her day, aris­ing as he left the bed­room, step­ping into the kitchen to pour her cup of cof­fee from the per­co­la­tor after hear­ing the screen door, and sip­ping her cof­fee in her night­gown as she watched her hus­band make his way to work. In her eyes at that moment a gen­er­ous pride stirred with humor and love.

On an ordi­nary day, she watched him until she fin­ished her cof­fee, then washed, dressed and began her own labors of the day. Today though, she stepped out onto the nar­row cement steps that were her back porch to see Pickum walk­ing away from his work. She became tight and afraid and won­dered if this was the day she had feared — the day Pickum would be too senile to work on the farm. Then he stopped mov­ing. The pile of scrap wood pre­vent­ed her from see­ing what her hus­band stood there watch­ing, point­ing to, frozen. She felt too afraid of what this all might mean to call out to him. Then he turned around and came quick­ly towards the house. Mabel went inside and sat at the kitchen table with her cof­fee, wait­ing for him.

He hadn’t expect­ed to see her there. “You’re up.”

Pickum, what is it?”

She looked in his face and all fears of his infir­mi­ty van­ished. “I got­ta use the phone. Don’t go out there, you hear.”

Of course not.” And she lis­tened as he asked the police to send the Hernandez boy out and told them there was a body in the orchard. Then he hung up and looked at her.

They’re comin’ out Mabel.”

She clutched the col­lar of her night­gown with one hand and held her oth­er arm close across her chest to keep from shak­ing. “Is it a man? Out in the orchard?”

Don’t mat­ter, now, does it?”

Yes, it does. You know it does, Pickum.” Her thick, strong body looked sud­den­ly frail to him and he was hor­ri­bly afraid of hurt­ing her. Pickum took his emp­ty cof­fee cup from the sink where he had left it and poured him­self anoth­er cup.

She looked up at him from the table. “Well?”

I wish ya’ wouldn’t ask, Mable.”

I’m askin’.”

Pickum couldn’t look at her any­more. Anger bit sharply at the col­lar of his shirt and twist­ed the pit of his stom­ach. “Let the police take care of it.”

The Hernandez boy?” Pickum knew she said ‘boy’, prac­ti­cal­ly yelled it real­ly, as a way of bring­ing up the past.

He’s a man. Good fam­i­ly.” He shout­ed her down and the past she dared to touch.

So’s ours.” Her response was prac­ti­cal­ly a whis­per, but deep cuts are often qui­et.

What’s that mean?”

I can’t talk any­more.” She left her cof­fee on the table and went to the stove. “Sit down. I’ll make you break­fast.”

Pickum sat at the table. After 60-plus years he knew bet­ter than to go on argu­ing now. She made a skil­let of pota­toes, sum­mer squash and onions, then fried two eggs and put them on top of a plate of the veg­eta­bles for Pickum. He ate qui­et­ly as she moved one of her half-baked zuchi­ni breads from the freez­er to a warm oven and start­ed cof­fee in the large 10 cup per­co­la­tor for the police. Then she poured anoth­er cup of cof­fee from their small every­day cof­fee pot for her­self and sat at the table with her hus­band.

Thought it was a pile of clothes, Mable. Small. All crum­pled over. He looked like a good boy. Strong hands. A pick­er maybe.” Pickum told her. He watched his wife’s strong wrin­kled hands pull the sug­ar bowl across the table and spoon three heaps into her cof­fee. Mable nev­er took sug­ar in her cof­fee. Mable nev­er made him break­fast on a week day. Mable nev­er looked at him and cried. Mable nev­er brought up the past. But today she did all of that in this one moment with­out a word. Behind him, he heard Hernandez pull up the dri­ve in a squad car.

Good For Your People

Friday, September 8th, 2006

I’m glad it’s you who come. Boy needs one of his own.”

Officer Hernandez want­ed to tell old Mr. Sneed that the boy couldn’t tell the dif­fer­ence between Hispanic or sun browned American. Not now. Instead, “Anyone who cares might just as well be one of his own right now, Mr. Sneed.”

The old man still seemed lost, unable to ori­ent him­self to the boy’s dusty, rum­pled body. Eventually he replied, “That’s kind. But it’s good you’re here, all the same.”

Thank you.” Hernandez went back to the squad car for the dig­i­tal video recorder, detached it from the dash and began record­ing the scene. Mr. Sneed stepped back­wards and down into the Almond orchard, stop­ping near one of the young trees. He pulled on one of the short branch­es and rubbed its leaves between his fin­gers, eyes yet fixed on the boy.

After mak­ing a first cir­cle of the scene Hernandez told him, “You don’t have to stay out here. You can go on inside and with for the coun­ty inves­ti­ga­tors. They’ll be here soon. Their work’s not…” He almost said ‘pret­ty’, but that seemed too obvi­ous.

This morn­ing, I come out to col­lect the props. Good yield this year. Used every board I own. Another peach and a more than a few of these trees would have lost a limb. Or split in two.”

Mr. Sneed had told him this when he arrived. People often repeat them­selves when they unex­pect­ed­ly dis­cov­er a dead body. He was old, but every­one behaved this way. It remind­ed Hernandez of the three years he worked in San Jose and the two in East Palo Alto before that. He want­ed to steer the old man away from talk­ing about the boy. He said, “It was a good year.” Or so he’d heard.

Good for your peo­ple, too.”

Hernandez held back a sigh and began record­ing the boy’s posi­tion in close up. Did Sneed see any­thing oth­er than the name on his badge, his skin?
“Your fam­i­ly, I mean.” Hernandez stopped mov­ing but didn’t look at Sneed. “I know your uncle. And your aunt. Knowed him since we picked togeth­er. First farm I owned. This orchard here, mat­ter of fact. No more pick­ers here, now. No pickin’ nuts.” The old man looked at the tree whose branch he held for the first time.

Hernandez stood upright, for­get­ting to stop the cam­era. “I didn’t know you knew them.”

Sure. Good peo­ple.” Finally, Pickum took his eyes off the boy and looked at Hernandez. “Good peo­ple,” he repeat­ed qui­et­ly. “It’s good you’re here. Right man for the job.” And the old man let go of the young tree branch in his hand and walked back to his house. Hernandez could hear cars com­ing fast down the near­by road, the coun­ty would be here soon, and the farm become a crime scene, the boy a vic­tim, the old man a mate­r­i­al wit­ness, he an offi­cer, and, all of them, one care­ful step removed from being peo­ple.