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.