Excerpt from:

HEADWINDS

THE AIR BASE

Once the war began, most of the young people left town—the boys for one branch of the service or another and the girls for places they could get jobs to help in the war effort.  Since I had a good job at Arganbright’s Photography Studio—a job I loved—I opted to stay in Liberal.  This also allowed me to continue my flying lessons uninterrupted.

After the initial excitement wore off, we drifted into a sort of humdrum routine.  There weren't many young people around but, otherwise, the war hadn’t changed Liberal all that much.

Business men took care of their businesses and farmers raised their crops.  With the demand for food to feed the troops being what it was, prices were good, so we were better fixed financially.  Having just gone through THE GREAT DEPRESSION followed by the “Dirty Thirties” that was a welcome relief.

When folks ran into each other at the post office, or at Harry’s Coffee Shop, the talk was usually about the war and who’d got a letter from this young’un or that.  When the boys came home on leave, they’d get together downtown on Saturday afternoon and saunter up and down the street so everybody could see how good they looked in their uniforms.

When we started hearing rumors that the government might build an airbase near Liberal, it sounded pretty far-fetched.  I ran into George Davis at the post office one morning and asked him what he knew about it. George had been mayor three times and usually knew what was going on.

“No more’n you do, I reckon,” he said. “Seems to me that this is a logical location for one though. We sure as hell got room for it.”

The implications were so great, folks spent a lot of time mulling that one over.  Not many of the townsfolk had even been up in one of Bonnie’s Piper J-3 Cubs.

When the newspaper reported that the government actually was going to build a base near Liberal, we figured it would probably change things some.  Hopefully, it would bring a little more money into the area.

No one dreamed just how much it would change us and our town.

Once the decision was made, the government didn’t waste any time.  Within weeks, we were standing on the corner of Main and Second Street watching cars, trucks and construction equipment rumbling in from every direction—all headed for the west edge of town.

What with the magnitude of the prairie surrounding us, we’d always considered ourselves sort of isolated out here.  Now it appeared that a broad ocean and a half continent between us and the enemy—both east and west—no longer safeguarded us from the far-reaching tentacles of war.

Construction of the airbase began on January 9, 1943.  In the weeks that followed, our lives were virtually turned upside down and inside out.  Everything happened so fast we were overwhelmed but we somehow managed to cope as hundreds of construction workers and their families poured into town.

The wide streets we’d always been so proud of were soon congested with trucks and automobiles.  Hotels, motels and apartments filled up overnight and folks began renting out spare rooms and converting garages, basements and attics into sleeping rooms and apartments.  When they were full, people began spilling over into nearby towns.

The Office of Price Administration opened a new office to supply ration cards for meat and sugar, gas and shoes. Everyone who was able-bodied went to work to help fill the needs of this sudden influx of people who demanded, not only food, but clothing, toilet articles, cigarettes and beer.  Everyone seemed in a rush and wherever lines formed—at restaurants, stores and theaters—people joked about “waiting to hurry up.”

Impatient construction workers, in khakis and jeans, overalls and denim shirts, crowded into restaurants for breakfast each morning before dawn.  While they ate, waitresses rushed around, filling their battered lunch pails with sandwiches, pie and coffee.  When the workday ended, they returned for dinner.  At night, beer flowed freely in taverns, and music and laughter echoed from smoke-filled “private” dining clubs, so-called to circumvent Kansas’s prohibition laws.

Liberal was no longer a struggling, depression-scarred dust-bowl town.  As we watched it grow and expand, we were proud to be a part of it; proud to be doing something besides raise grain to help win the war.  As money passed from hand to hand, it was more than most of us had seen in a lifetime.

Meanwhile, west of town, long-legged jackrabbits and wary coyotes loped off across the prairie as their natural habitat was destroyed by monstrous construction equipment.  Almost overnight, land that once produced corn and wheat, prairie grass and tumbleweeds was transformed into runways of solid cement.

Then, around it all, they built a high steel fence.

Gigantic steel hangers and row upon row of long, narrow barracks, mess halls and office buildings appeared as if by magic on the once-barren landscape.  Five months after construction began, crews and equipment moved on and hundreds of young soldiers, some children only yesterday, arrived to take charge and assume the roles necessary to take care of the needs of the expected student pilots.

On June 20th, the huge, hulking B-24 Liberators.* began arriving and, on July first the first class was introduced to the bomber.

Overnight, it seemed, young soldiers poured in to fill the roles of pilots and co-pilots, navigators, tail-gunners, bombardiers, maintenance crew and operating personnel.  Each training cycle covered a period of nine weeks.  Half way through the cycle, a new class began so that a class graduated every four and a half months.

In the coming months, the skies over the Great Plains roared and groaned and shrieked as the four-engine instruments of peace and destruction thundered in to lay claim to the concrete manifestation.

As the Air Force song echoed from taverns and barracks and from automobiles congesting the streets, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder” became more familiar to us than “Home, home on the range.”

The war, which months ago had been a distant two-headed monster we read about in newspapers, and in letters from loved ones, had come to Liberal, bringing with it the regimentation, the excitement, the insidious fear—and the prosperity it engendered.

As we became accustomed to bombers rumbling overhead, echoing across the prairie, we learned to tell by sound if it was one or three or a squadron.  We also learned the difference between the thrumming sound of the B-17 and the lumbering sound of the B-24—the Liberator—and, later, the roar of the B-29 which would ultimately bear the instrument of destruction and free our country from war.  With the passing of time, we lost interest in rushing outside, our eyes upward, gazing in awe at their presence.

We no longer had time to stand around at the post office, or on street corners, exchanging small talk about “how the war was going.”  We knew first hand because we were a part of it.  It monopolized our thoughts and our dreams.  All our activities—everything we did—was planned around “The War.”


CHARLIE

 

Charlie couldn’t sleep. She paced restlessly, from her bedroom to her small kitchenette and back again, then paused and stared vacantly at the clock on her desk. It was past two a.m.

Despite Carlo’s assurance otherwise, she felt responsible for what he was going through.

If only I had never met Tony Genelli, she thought. I wish it had been him I shot at the airport instead of those two men.

A thought crept into her mind. She stopped pacing and stood at the window looking out at the darkened street.

She had killed for Carlo before. It was a wild idea, and it would be dangerous, but she could do it again.

Considering all the harm he was causing, and the fact that, because of him, Carlo’s life was at stake, Tony Genelli’s life was worth less than the animals she’d killed when she was hunting with her dad. In fact, she reasoned, those animals never harmed anyone.

Tony Genelli did.

Now was not the best time to skip classes; but she would figure out a way to catch up on her studies later. That was the least of her worries. This was too important to postpone.

For two days she thought and planned. She would leave after Carlo and Moira’s telephone call on Sunday. That would give her a week. She must be extremely cautious. Carlo must never know.

She shopped for an inexpensive travel bag, a brown wig, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a brown skirt and sweater and flat shoes. In the bag, she packed her makeup and toilet articles, a low-cut red silk gown, matching sandals, white shoulder length gloves and her floor-length black cape. She’d have to figure out a way to purchase a gun when she reached The States.

She told her professors that she planned to spend a few days—possibly a week—touring Europe. She could not completely avoid leaving a track, but she would take every precaution possible and hope nothing happened to instigate an investigation. To make her travels more difficult to trace, she decided not to fly out of Paris. She checked flight schedules from several European cities and decided that, rather than go through the hassle of the channel to get to London, she would fly out of Brussels.

To avoid using credit cards she withdrew cash for the trip from her checking account. She’d leave her driver’s license with the car and rely on public transportation. She’d need her passport, of course. That couldn’t be avoided. To further cover up her movements, she would book a flight to New York and make arrangements from there. Even with these precautions, it was risky; but a risk she had to take.

Sunday afternoon, she dressed in her newly acquired non-descript clothing, checked to make sure she had everything she needed, put her bags in the car and paced restlessly as she waited for Carlo and Moira to call.

She was so nervous that she started when, at half past six, the phone rang echoing shrilly through the apartment.

“Thank God,” she said when she heard Carlo’s voice. “I was afraid something had happened.”

“No problem, babe,” Carlo said. “The lines have been busy. How are you anyhow?”

“I’m fine,” she replied cheerfully, hoping he wouldn’t detect the nervousness in her voice. “Are you and Moira OK?”

“We’re OK, honey,” Moira said from the extension in the bedroom. “What’s wrong? You sound a little nervous.”

“Oh, I just got a little upset when your call came in so late,” Charlie laughed. “You know me—worry wart that I am. So tell me, how are—” She hesitated. “Things?”

“Now, Charlene,” Carlo said. “I told you, I don’t want you worrying. You hear me? As a matter of fact, it’s been relatively quiet this past week. We’ve had a good breathing spell.”

“So how are classes?” Moira asked, changing the subject.

They talked until after eight.

“We love you,” Carlo said before they hung up.

“I love you too,” Charlie said.

Replacing the receiver, she sat staring at the phone, picturing Moira slowly descending the stairs to the den. Carlo would pour a drink, then they would talk about their conversation as they sipped their scotch. She brushed the tears from her eyes. God! If only she were there.

The clock on the dashboard read eight thirty five when she—finally—got away. She reached Brussels a little after one. Just before she got to the airport, she stopped under a street light and removed the brown scarf.  Once the wig was in place, she peered into the mirror under the visor.  Her disguise was complete.

Parking her car in the airport parking lot, she left the keys with the attendant. Luck was with her; a seat was available on the eight-thirty a.m. flight to New York. She purchased a ticket, took a cab to a nearby hotel and checked in, leaving a call at the desk for seven.

During the flight to New York, Charlie considered her plans. All had gone smoothly so far. How to obtain a gun was the only remaining problem. In rural areas such as Maysville, where hunting was a popular sport, it would be easy. But in crime-ridden cities such as New York or Miami she would have to provide identification and that she could not do.

Perhaps I won’t have to buy one! she thought then. Tony, being who he is, will have a gun. If he isn’t wearing one, he will surely have one nearby; it shouldn’t be hard to distract him—

Besides, if she used Tony’s gun, it couldn’t be traced to her.

Then she thought of something else—what if Tony wasn’t in Miami? He had to be. If he wasn’t, she decided, she would wait until he returned.

Or, if I have to, I’ll hunt him down.

She pictured herself in Tony’s apartment. Where would he keep his gun when he was at home? She faced the fact that she might have to lure him into bed. She recoiled at the thought. But if she had to, she decided, she could do that.

The girl with brown hair, dressed in a non-descript brown skirt and sweater, and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, who purchased a ticket from New York to Miami under the name of Barbara Gordon bore no resemblance to the flame-haired Paris model known as Charlie.



FRAGILE HOPES, TRANSIENT DREAMS

 

MISERIES OF THE HEART 


Silas Deaton sat at the end of the long kitchen table with the blue flowered, plastic tablecloth and cleaned and oiled his thirty-aught-six.

His wife, Betty, twenty years his junior, was at the sink humming cheerfully while she washed the breakfast dishes, unaware that Silas had been awake when she sneaked out just before midnight and was still awake when she returned a few minutes before the clock struck four.

Since he always went to bed early and slept soundly, she never worried when she slipped out to meet Randy Moore. If he happened to wake up, she could always tell him she had gone to see about a commotion in the brooder house.

However, Silas had been suspicious for several weeks. Last night, when she spent almost thirty minutes in the bathroom getting ready for bed, he’d decided to stay awake to see if his suspicions were true.

He had waited at the window until she reached the road then went outside in time to see her get into Moore’s Chevy, parked out of sight of the house with the lights off. From the shelter of the windbreak, he’d watched as the car rolled silently down the incline. The motor caught at the bottom of the hill and the Chevy climbed smoothly over the next rise and out of sight.

Then Silas went back to his bedroom and sat in the dark by the window, thinking.

He and Betty had been married now for twenty-five years. She was a bright young girl of twenty when they were married, he a dapper widower of forty—not wealthy, but “well-fixed” and the “catch” of the community.

Everyone told her how lucky she was to be marrying Silas Deaton. Apparently, she had agreed—until recently—until she felt she needed a younger man.

If she had to do it, he thought, he wished to hell she’d picked someone besides Moore. The man was no damned good. He owed everyone in the county and drank too much for Silas’s liking.

As he sat slumped in the chair by the window, time dragging by, the mantle clock struck one—then two—then three.

Coyotes began howling over in the north pasture and he made a mental note to go hunting for them come daylight. Game was in short supply and they’d likely play havoc with the young livestock if the weather turned bad.

Along toward four, clouds covered the moon and, just before she returned, the wind came up and flung icy rain in noisy clumps against the window. It howled plaintively around the corner of the house echoing the miseries in his heart.

When he heard the sound of a distant motor, he climbed back into bed and turned his face to the wall.

“Planning on going hunting?” she asked now. Cheerfully.

“Yeah,” he said shortly. “There’s some varmints I need to kill.

“Coyotes were stirring up a fuss over in the north pasture around three o’clock this morning,” he continued. “Figured I’d go over and see if I could bag a couple of them—too—before they harm the livestock.”

He saw her tense as she realized the impact of what he had said. The room was deathly still and she winced at the sudden sharp snap as he slammed the bolt forward, inserting a shell into the chamber, and pointed the gun.

She turned slowly. As he sighted down the barrel, he could see her blanched white face and the stark fear in her eyes.

He raised the gun just a slight bit, aimed carefully and fired. Then he left the warm, moist kitchen where the teakettle steamed on the stove and the odors of breakfast still lingered in the air.

As the door closed behind him, a penetrating north wind whipped around the corner of the house. Thick clouds boiled overhead and sheets of ice-laced rain streamed across the prairie, piercing through his woolen coat, stinging his face as he bent into the wind and headed for the shed.

It was only three-quarters of a mile across the field to the draw, a good walk on most days, but he was in no mood to fight the wind, so he got into the pickup and backed it out of the shed. He drove to the state road and turned east, circling around through what was left of Cedarwood, once a prosperous community, now only a ghost town.

As he drove down the main street, he spied the skeleton of a cat hanging from the window of the deserted schoolhouse and a sickening, numb feeling overwhelmed him. The red brick building had been modern when it was built in nineteen-forty-five. Long and low with wide halls, large classrooms and a spacious gymnasium, it had echoed with the sounds of children until it had been consolidated with the Gates school, ten miles to the south, three years ago.

The school, a reminder of the way he felt—abandoned, no longer needed—depressed him.

Like a massive gray monument, the fog-enshrouded grain elevator loomed ghost-like at the edge of town. As he crossed the tracks, the red signal light gleamed dimly and the wandering lights of an approaching freight train, as yet invisible, reflected off the dense, overhanging clouds.

As it crossed the railroad bridge, a mile up the track, the mournful sound of the muted whistle echoed against the bleak, lowering skies.

He turned north again and parked the pickup on the side of the road. Head bent into the turbulent wind, he trudged across rows of frozen corn stubble toward the draw where he figured the coyotes would be hiding.

When he reached the row of trees that rimmed the draw, he walked quietly on the down-wind side lest his odor alert them to his presence—if they were there. He had walked only a hundred yards when three large coyotes broke from the ravine and ran, headed west by northwest. Jerking the rifle into position, he fired two shots, felling one, then another. Then he crossed the ditch to where they lay, made sure they were dead, and headed back to the pickup.

Opening the gap in the barbed wire fence, he drove to the edge of the draw and left the motor running while he dragged the coyotes, one after the other, across the ravine and hefted them into the bed of the pickup. They must have weighed close to forty-five pounds each but, at sixty-five, Silas was still man enough to lift much heavier loads.

“Damn it!” he said to himself as he bolted the end-gate closed. “I don’t yet need another man to do my homework for me!”

He drove away from the town, around the section line road, in case the third coyote was lurking on the far side of the field. As he approached from downwind, he saw it leap from the ditch, cross the road and lope north across a recently harvested patch of corn. He floor-boarded the accelerator until he was even with the coyote then slammed on the brakes, leaped from the pickup, aimed and fired. The coyote rolled end over end, coming to rest in a twisted heap between rows of corn stubble.

Dragging it to the road, he threw it on top of the others thinking that a cup of hot coffee would taste mighty good. He’d had enough killing for one day.

When he neared the house, he lifted his foot from the accelerator and drove slowly into the driveway. He stopped the truck and sat staring at the kitchen door for several minutes dreading to go inside. He considered himself a peaceful man and the prospect of what lay before him was not to his liking.

He could take the coyotes to the barn and skin them out first but that would only be postponing the inevitable.

He sighed and got out of the pickup and headed for the house.

Once inside the entryway, he leaned against the doorjamb and peered into the kitchen.

She was sitting at the table with both hands cupped around a coffee mug staring, as if transfixed, at the hole in the wall above the sink.

Well, he thought, crossing to the stove and pouring himself a cup of coffee, we might as well get it over with.

She’d leave, of course. But better that than for her to be screwing around behind his back. He might be old, but he had his pride. He was surprised she wasn’t gone already.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” she said, her eyes shifting to where he stood.

“I figured you might,” he said dryly.

“A woman doesn’t always know when she’s well off.” She hesitated. “Whatever got into me, it isn’t worth losing you. If you’ll let me, I’d like to try to make it up to you.”

Silas felt the hard crust of ice that had formed around his heart during the night begin to break up and slowly melt away.

He nodded and took a sip of coffee. Then his eyes moved to the hole above the sink.

“Well,” he said. “Guess I’d best fetch the tool box from the shop and patch up that wall.”



17½ BIG STEPS


BAHÍA DE COMPECHE  

As though imprisoning the secrets of the dead in its hidden depths, the flat, slate blue sea lay motionless while, near the shore, the wind dashed foam-lipped waves against the rocks, swirling, troubling them to a murky brown.  Huge black drops of rain, released by ominous wind-tossed clouds, splattered the impassive earth.

The cold, blowing through wide cracks in the bathhouse walls, raised goose bumps and I fiercely scratched last night’s mosquito bites before braving the piercing needles of the icy shower.  Darting out, wet and shivering, I grabbed the soap from the saucer on the rustic wooden bench, lathered quickly and stepped back into the shower.  As rivulets of suds negotiate downward through angry goose bumps, I wonder why, in heaven’s name, I am still here.

The obvious answer is that, until this cold wind blew in across the bay this morning, I was “muy tranquila,” lulled into euphoric contentment by an abundance of fuel for a quixotic muse.

Awakened each morning by the sunrise salutation of tropical birds and the fragrance of orange blossoms, I spend blissful days in the cool shade of fruit-laden orange, lemon and mango trees.  In this idyllic setting, the writing flows smoothly.

Each morning, the owner inspects his orchard, gathers the fully-ripened fruit, and leaves a few choice specimens on my make-shift table.

Yesterday, a family came to gather coconuts which will be made into candy for selling on street corners to “los turistas.”  The oldest child, a boy of about twelve years, agile as a monkey, shimmied up and kicked loose the coconuts nesting high in the swaying crowns of the towering palms.  Dogs and humans scattered as they pelted to the ground.

When the pickup drove away, the bed heaped with seventy-four coconuts, topped by five, black-eyed, brown-faced children and two spotted dogs, thirty unripened coconuts still nested in the fronds of the lofty tree.

When the sun sinks behind the hill, dark falls as swiftly as if a black velvet shade has been drawn.  Hushed birds slumber in the broad branches of the mango tree and all is still.  Then I have nothing to do but lie in my hamaca and stare into the night and, perhaps, to say a prayer or two.

The storm has abated now, the wind a mere whisper among the leaves.  The clouds have miraculously disappeared and the stars, twinkling through the trees, promise the dawning of a sunny day.  Before I close my eyes, I remind myself that there are miles to travel, much yet to be explored in this vast, enchanting land; that I must be moving on.

“In a day or two,” I murmur as I yield to the arms of Morpheus in soporific contentment.

But not tomorrow.

MASTER OF ALL I SURVEY

The sun seemed to be resting on the rim of the far hill when Juan emerged from his casa and stood for a moment admiring what was no doubt the most beautiful view on the hill.  A day’s work done, he liked nothing better than to sit outside his door, looking out over the valley below, and dream.

He stretched, then sat down on the wooden box which served as a chair, and leaned back against the wall of the house extending his chest proudly.  He had every right to be proud; he owned the land, which he himself had cleared, and the house, built with his own hands, free and clear.  He felt like a very rich man.

As music drifted up and lights twinkled on over the valley, he slapped at the mosquitoes rising from the orchards below and smiled to himself as his thoughts turned to Carmen.  He had been in love with Carmen since he was ten years old.  Now that he had a proper home for her, they could marry.  Carmen would bear him strong, handsome sons who would one day inherit this empire for which he had worked so hard.

Yesterday he had purchased a ring; next weekend they would set the date.

He sighed.  If only she didn’t live so far away.  He consoled himself with the fact that in a very short time, she would be sitting here beside him.

Juan had very little money but, to him, that was of no consequence.  He wanted only to be a good man, to do his job well and to come home to Carmen when the day’s work was done.

I would not trade this life for all the land, and all the houses and orange groves in the valley, he thought, assured that, despite their riches, those in the valley must sometimes look up at the humble house, high on the hill, and envy him his freedom.

He went inside, lay down on his cot and went to sleep.  In three days more, he would see his Carmen.

To the impatient lover, the four hour journey seemed very long.  The bus had hardly stopped when Juan jumped to the ground and almost ran the remaining ten blocks to Carmen’s home.  His heart pounded, not because of the run but because this was the night he had been waiting for.  Tonight they would set their wedding date.

“Carmen is not here,” her mother told him.

Juan could not believe his ears.

“But—but—we had a date—” he stammered.

“She has gone to the fiesta in Mérida,” her mother replied coolly.

“But I am not late; why did she go without me?” Juan asked, dismayed.

“She went with Jorge Garcia.”

 “That cannot be true!” Juan said.  “My Carmen would never go with another man!”

Her mother closed the door.

He hitched a ride to Mérida.  His heart fell as he stood in the shadows and watched them dance, Jorge’s arm around Carmen’s slender waist, her laughing red lips close to his.  He lingered until the dance ended at midnight.  Then he watched as Jorge kissed her and they drove away in Jorge’s big shiny car, laughing and talking.

Juan walked to the square and slumped down on a bench wondering what he should do.  Should he go to Carmen's house and confront her?  But it sickened him to think of what she might say.  Perhaps it would be best if he returned home and called her on the telephone—

At sunup he rose from the bench, took the next bus to Compeche and trudged up the hill.  His casa, now a quiet, lonely refuge, welcomed him.  Sad and exhausted, he fell onto his cot and slept.

He called every day for the next three days, but each time, Carmen’s mother said she was not in.  Nor did she return his calls.  Did she not realize he was her only true love?  And so he waited, hoping she would come to her senses.

But the days dragged by and still no word from Carmen.  He wore a continual scowl.  The men he worked with stopped referring to him as the grinning man.  They now avoided him, and watched him warily from the corner of the eye.

No longer did Juan spend his evenings sitting outside his door looking out over the valley.  When he came from work, he ate a simple meal of tortillas and warmed-over beans then lay down on his bed, and turned his face to the wall, tortured by thoughts of Carmen in another man’s arms.  Even though Jorge Garcia owned more land, he could never love Carmen as much as did he.

When he heard the news that Carmen was to marry Jorge, Juan went from work directly to the tavern.  He got very drunk and fought with his best friend, Alfonso.

The next morning, he was sick—too sick to go to work, he thought.  But Alfonso came and roused him from the bed, forced him to drink three cups of black coffee and walked him down the hill.

Although the pain slowly lessened with the passing of time, Juan could no longer sit outside his door at eventide, looking out over the valley.  Thoughts of Carmen hovered in the back of his mind and the ache in his heart was too great.

His dreams gone, he need not now be prudent with his money so, rather than go home to a lonely house, he took to stopping at the taverns after work for una cerveza.

Alfonso, who lived halfway up the hill, with his mother and his sister Benita, sometimes joined him.  Rather than see Juan drink himself insensible, he often coaxed him to leave the tavern insisting they walk home together.

One morning, as Juan passed Alfonso’s house on his way to work, Benita, emerged from the kitchen door carrying a basket.

“Buenas días , Juan,” she said.  “May I walk with you?”

“Of course, Benita,” he replied.

She was on her way to the mercado, she said, to buy fish and fresh vegetables.

“It is a beautiful day,” she said, smiling happily.

Juan had formed the habit of thinking dark thoughts as he walked alone down the hill to work each morning.  Although Benita was but a child—barely sixteen— she laughed easily and her company, on this sunny morning, eased the pain in his heart a little.

Juan studied her from the corner of his eye.  There was a gentle look about her and her brown eyes sparkled when she smiled.  She had grown to be a very pretty girl.

But she will never be as beautiful as my Carmen, Juan thought.

The next morning, when he passed Alfonso’s house, Juan slowed his steps.  But Benita did not come out.

The following day, however, she joined him again and after that she walked with him often.  Having a young and cheerful companion on his morning walk gradually lightened Juan’s heart.  His fellow workers began patting him on the back, happy to see a smile back on his face.

One evening, as he returned from work, Benita’s mother met him on the path and asked him to join them for supper.

The meal was delicious, a relief from the meager fare he usually prepared for himself, and it was pleasant to sit at the table with Alfonso and Benita and their mother.  As host, Alfonso was formal and polite and Benita, smiling indulgently, insisted on his taking extra servings.

As time passed, Juan frequented the taverns less often, and one evening, as he trudged up the hill, he stopped suddenly, a puzzled frown forming on his brow.  The entire day had passed without a thought of Carmen!

He proceeded on up the hill and when he reached his casa, for the first time in months, he paused and sat down on the wooden box outside his door.  He took a deep breath and looked out over the valley.  It was as beautiful as he remembered but his heart felt something was missing.

He sighed and wondered if he would ever dream again.  Surprisingly, his thoughts turned to Benita.  She was much too young but dare he hope that he would one day learn to love again—

As the lights began to twinkle on in the valley, he remembered that, even though he had lost his Carmen, he was still a very rich man.

He turned at a sound.  It was Benita.

“So this is your house,” she exclaimed.  “What a wonderful view you have.”

“It is the most beautiful view on the hill,” he said proudly.

“May I sit with you a while?” she asked.  “The climb is a very steep and I am out of breath.”

He went inside for a chair and together they watched the lights twinkle in the valley even as the sun’s rays lingered on the hill.

When it was dark, Juan walked Benita home.  When she tripped on a stone, he grasped her arm to steady her and, although he released her immediately, his breath came fast at the touch.

As he climbed back to his casa, he refused to allow himself to think of Benita.

A few days later, Alfonso stopped him as he came from work.

“Hola mi amigo!” he called.  Vamos a tomar una cerveza?

“Muy bien,” Juan replied.

“I am glad you came by,” he said, once they were seated in the cool interior of the tavern.  “I am tired.  A beer will taste good.  What brings you into the city?”

Alfonso shrugged.

“Nothing important,” he said.

“It is a long walk on a hot day for nothing,” Juan chided.

 “Can’t a fellow have a beer with a friend?” Alfonso asked.

They talked of many things as they drank the cold beer, then Juan ordered another round.

“We have not done this for a while,” he said.

Alfonso sighed.

“To be honest, mi amigo, I have lost my job and I felt the need for my old friend’s cheerful company—unless your mind is still too occupied with other matters,” he countered.

“Juan nodded, his thoughts turning to Carmen.  Though his mind didn’t dwell on her as it once had, the thought of her still had the power to bring him heartache.

“Qué pasa?” he asked, his thoughts turning back to his friend.

“The economy, what else?” Alfonso said.

Juan shook his head sadly and took a long sip of beer.

“That Benita,” Alfonso said, changing the subject.  “She is a good looking girl, no?”

“Es verdad,” Juan replied.  “Your sister is muy bonita.”

“She likes you very much.”

At the tone in his voice, Juan glanced at his friend curiously but Alfonso, seemingly unconcerned, was taking a drink of beer.”

“Yes—we are good friends,” Juan said.

“She doesn’t think of you as a friend,” Alfonso said.  “She is in love with you.”

Juan looked at him, startled, then smiled and shook his head.

“Ah, it is only a young girl’s whim,” he said.  “She will soon fall in love with someone her own age.”

“Maybe so,” Alfonso said, then “You don’t like Benita?”

“She is still a child—much too young for an old man like me,” Juan replied.

“Children grow up,” Alfonso said.  “Benita is a woman now.  She knows her own mind.”

Juan ordered another beer and turned the conversation to other matters.

As they walked home, Juan found himself looking to catch sight of Benita when Alfonso went into his house.  When he did not, he continued on his way, smiling to himself as he thought about what Alfonso had said.

Benita is looking quite womanly, he thought.  But she is only a child.  Besides, Carmen was the love of my life; I will never love anyone else.

When he reached home, Juan took his bowl of beans and rice outside.  As he ate, he watched the lights.  The sounds of children’s laughter drifted up from below.  Occasionally a dog barked, the call of the night birds echoed through the darkness and the sweet smell of orange blossoms filled the air.  Soon the trees would be heavy with fruit and money would flow into the rich men’s pockets.

His thoughts turned to Carmen and the sadness returned.  She and her rich husband were no doubt sitting at dinner in their fine house about now.  Suddenly, Juan no longer felt rich; Jorge Garcia had stolen his wealth when he married Carmen.  Jorge, the rich man, now also owned his Carmen.

Sleepy from drinking so much beer after the long day’s work, his head nodded on his chest and when he awoke, it was very late.  The valley was quiet now.  Only a few lights twinkled in the distance.  He went into his house and, without lighting a lamp, lay down on his bed and slept dreamlessly.

The next morning, Benita did not come from her house to walk with him on her way to the market.  Nor did she join him the morning after that.  When she did not appear the following day, Juan put aside his disappointment.

It is just as well, he thought.  Although he enjoyed her company, she was growing too fond of him.

I must not take advantage of Benita’s youth, he told himself.

A week passed with no sign of Benita.  Then, on Saturday evening when he came from work, she was sitting on the step in front of her house.  He could hear pans rattling in the kitchen as her mother prepared the evening meal.  He slowed his steps thinking perhaps she might ask him to dinner.  However, when he reached the path leading to her door, Benita stood.

“Good evening, Juan,” she said politely then, before he could reply, she turned and went inside.

Juan was baffled.  She was acting very strange—nothing like the happy, friendly girl he had grown accustomed to in recent weeks.

Monday morning, as he approached, she came from her house and walked down the hill ahead of him.  He quickened his step to overtake her.

“Good morning, Benita,” he said.  “How are you on such a lovely day?”

“Quite well, Juan,” she replied formally.

“I haven’t seen much of you lately,” he said.  “You must be very busy.”

“Not really,” she replied.  “It is only that I have no time for old men.”

Juan winced at the sound of his own words coming from Benita’s lips.

She quickened her step.

“Rosita!” she called to a friend who was walking ahead.  “Un momento!”

And she ran down the hill to walk with her friend.

As he continued on his way, Juan’s brow puckered thoughtfully.  The difference between their ages was only six years.  He knew of hombres whose wives were a great deal younger than they were and their marriages seemed to be going well.

“Dios!” he muttered to himself as he realized where his thoughts were leading.  I still love Carmen; I want no other.  So why do I care what Alfonso’s sister thinks?”

He shook his head as if to clear his mind; still, his thoughts turned to Benita often throughout the day.  That evening, when he passed her house on his way home from work, he kept his eyes straight ahead, wondering if she was watching from the window.  Then he scoffed at the thought and continued up the hill.

He must put Benita out of his mind.  The feelings she had expressed to Alfonso, were but a young girl’s crush.

But that night when, once again, he dreamed of sitting in front of his house, looking out over the valley, it was Benita—not Carmen—who sat at his side.

When he awoke the next morning, he did not remember the dream, but his heart felt lighter.  He walked briskly down the hill.  For the first time, the thought of Carmen—married to Jorge—did not make him weep inside.

When he passed Alfonso’s house, he looked straight ahead, hoping to catch site of Benita from the corner of his eye.  But she did not appear.

Two days later, when Juan passed on his way to the village Alfonso, who had gone to Mérida to look for work, was sitting in front of his house.

“Hola!” Juan called.  “Welcome home.  Did you find work?”

Alfonso shook his head sadly.

“Too many hombres looking for the same job,” he said.  “Almost ten men for each job.  Many, including myself, were turned away.  It was a wasted trip.”

“Something will turn up,” Juan said cheerfully.  “Come into town this afternoon and we will have una cerveza.”

“Excelente!” Alfonso said, his face brightening.

As Juan continued on his way, he whistled a tune.  God was very good to him.  He had a good job and a good house.  He was rich.  Why did a man need a wife anyway?  A woman would only tie him down.

When the day ended, Alfonso stood waiting across the street.  They walked to the tavern and after three beers, during which they talked of jobs and the economy and fishing, Juan said, “You were wrong about Benita, amigo.  She thinks I am too old—even for a friend.”

Alfonso slapped his knee and laughed so hard he could not speak for several minutes.  Finally, he set his beer on the table and took out his handkerchief and wiped the tears from his eyes.

Juan watched his friend, puzzled.  What had he said to cause such an outburst?

Alfonso’s laughter subsided and he took a long drink of beer than laughed again, shaking his head.

“What is so funny?” Juan asked.

“Those were your words—remember?” Alfonso laughed.  “You said you were too old for Benita.”

“So I did,” Juan said gruffly.  “What is so funny about that?”

“When I told Benita what you said, she became so angry she cursed and called you a very bad name,” Alfonso laughed.  “She is just getting back at you, my friend.”

At that, Juan began to laugh too.

“Drink up, amigo,” he said.  “Let us have another beer.”

The next day, though Juan’s head ached from too much cerveza the night before, he felt unexplainably light-hearted.

For the next three days, he went to work in the morning and returned in the evening to sit outside his door, looking out over the valley as he ate his supper and watched the sunset.

The sweet odor of ripened fruit, heavy on the trees below, filled his nostrils with heady perfume as the moon and stars lit up the sky and lights twinkled on in the houses below.

Juan breathed deeply.  He felt at peace, his mind at rest; and when the lights in the valley began to go out, he went to his bed and dreamed.

Saturday evening, Juan bathed and dressed carefully, put on a new white shirt and combed his hair back smoothly.  Before he started down the hill, he plucked a yellow hibiscus blossom from a bush he had planted by his path and twirled it in his hand as he walked.

“I’d like to speak to Benita,” he said when her mother answered his knock at the door.

Benita emerged from the bedroom wearing a beautiful blue eyelet dress.  Her hair hung smoothly over her shoulders and her eyes sparkled impudently in the lamp light.

Juan’s heart fell.  Obviously, she already had a date.

She came to where he stood and smiled up at him.

“Good evening, Juan,” she said.

“I—I was just going into town to the cinema,” he stammered.  “It is said to be a very good movie and I thought you might like to come along—but I see you have other plans.”

“No, I have no plans,” she smiled.  “I would be delighted to go to the cinema with you.”

She kissed her Mamá on the cheek and turned back to Juan.

“I picked this from my bush,” he said, extending the flower.

“Thank you,” she replied demurely and slyly tucked the blossom behind her left ear.

Juan’s heart sang as he took her hand and, together, they walked down the hill toward the city.

 



GOING AWAY

Kathy shivered and drew Marty closer as the sinister black cumulus cloud of dirt and debris rolled toward them across the prairie. Roiled by vicious winds, it billowed upward, looming ever larger until it covered the sky from horizon to horizon. Marty clutched her hand tightly, his eyes fixed on the storm as it closed in on them. Static electricity arced eerily through its churning guts and fingers of the wind-driven turbulent clouds reached earthward as if to embroil them in the cyclonic mass.

When debris began flying about the yard, Mama hustled them into the house slamming the door shut behind her. The storm struck instantly, and they were engulfed in total blackness. Fumbling for a match, she lit the kerosene lamp but the light glowed dimly in the dust-laden air.

“Is it the end of the world, Mama?” Marty asked through chattering teeth.

“No, son,” his mother replied. “It’s just a bad dust storm.”

She brought an old sheet from the bedroom and tore it into strips and she and Kathy stuffed them into cracks around the doors and windows with kitchen knives. Still, the fine dust sifted in, powdering their hair and skin, coating the furniture with a flour-like film.

“It was hell driving through the damned stuff,” Horace said when he arrived home an hour later, his blood-shot eyes squinting wearily through the mask of dirt that covered his face. “You couldn’t even see the damned road.”

Enveloped in a haze of gloom as dense as the pall of dust that filled the air, they ate an early supper then sat around the stove, taking comfort in its warmth.

For four days, the storm raged. School was cancelled, WPA work was suspended, no one came and no one left the house. As the wind changed direction and topsoil blew in from Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma, the air changed in color from dark to light brown to red or yellow. At times, it blew with the force of a gale; at other times, it merely whispered through the eaves. But it never ceased.

They settled into a monotonous routine. Kathy and Marty spent the day reading or studying‑quietly so as not to rile Horace who just sat by the stove most of the time with a scowl on his face. When Mama wasn’t cooking or washing up, she was usually playing solitaire.

When the dust hung thickest, and they could hardly see across the room, Mama made them put on the dust masks the government had doled out. They smelled repulsively of inner tube, and were hard to breathe through, but Mama made them wear them anyway.

Friday morning came, bleak and cold with no sign of the storm letting up. At twelve o’clock Kathy closed her books and went to help with dinner. When she entered the kitchen, Mama was cutting up a chunk of salt pork to add to the pot of pinto beans they had picked over earlier and were now simmering on the back of the three-burner kerosene stove. They would be done in time for supper, as would the three loaves of sourdough bread rising on the sideboard, covered with a tea towel Kathy had made from a flour sack and embroidered with purple pansies.

Biscuits were browning in the oven and, while Mama stirred the gravy, Kathy dusted off four dinner plates with a clean tea towel, collected the knives and forks, and went to the dining room to set the table.

Horace was hunched down in his chair, his elbows on his knees, staring at the yellow flames through the screen on the door of the pot-bellied stove. He looked up and scowled when Kathy entered as though she had intruded on his thoughts.

In the dim light, Marty was frowning over the geography book spread open before him on the sturdy oak dining table. Positioned squarely in the room, the family not only ate their meals there, but also read, studied, conversed, played cards, and entertained any company that happened by.

“I ‘spect you’d better light the lamp, Kathy,” Mama called.

Kathy removed the globe and lit the lamp and placed it in the center of the table then carefully lifted the cloth protecting the butter, salt and pepper, spoon holder and sorghum from the dust. She laid the table, taking care to place the silver just so, as Grandma Laura had taught her. When she came to Marty, she teasingly set his plate on the geography book.

“Hey‑cut that out!” he said in a hoarse whisper.

Horace’s chair scraped the floor as he whirled, his eyes glaring like cold steel beneath his shaggy brows.

“That’s enough of that, young lady,” he snarled.

“I was only teasing‑”

“I said to shut up!”

“I was just trying to explain‑”

Springing to his feet, he unbuckled his leather belt, jerked it from the loops of his trousers, drew back his arm and swung. Kathy flinched and sucked her breath in sharply when the heavy buckle struck her low in the back. The room began to spin and she grasped the back of a chair to keep from falling, dimly aware of Marty staring at her, his eyes wide and scared, and Horace, still glaring, standing over her, the belt in his hand.

“That’ll teach you to talk back to me, young lady,” he growled.

Dazed, she turned and made her way to the bedroom.

Mama looked up as she passed through the kitchen, but she didn’t say anything.

She probably didn’t see what happened, Kathy thought, fighting back waves of nausea.

She lay down on the bed and curled up on top of the covers. The cold room felt good to her feverish body. Her back throbbed where the belt buckle had struck, but after a while the nausea faded away.

The door opened and Mama came quietly into the room and lay down, turning on her side so she could look into Kathy’s face. Her hand felt soft and warm when she smoothed back her hair.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I guess so,” Kathy replied.

“I’m sorry‑”

Kathy rubbed her cheek against Mama’s hand.

“Come and eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You should cover up‑it’s cold in here.”

“I’m all right.”

The worry lines on Mama’s forehead were deeper than usual.

“I’ve got to go back to the kitchen,” she whispered, patting Kathy’s arm and gently rubbing her shoulder.

She went as quietly as she came, leaving the door open a crack to allow a little warmth into the room.

Kathy wondered if Mama was afraid of Horace. She never complained about anything he did, and it wasn’t like Mama not to speak her mind. She was sure she didn’t love him.

It had been tough for Mamma, trying to make ends meet after she lost her job. The worry lines had been deep then too.

“It will be great living in the country,” she’d said when Horace asked her to marry him. “There will be lots of fun things for you kids to do on the farm‑you’ll see!”

Although it wasn’t as much fun as they’d thought it would be, it was all right as long as Horace was in the field. That was most of the time until the dust storms began ravaging the earth and uprooting the tender young wheat.

After Horace gave up farming and they moved to Brighton, nothing had gone right.

Kathy remembered how Mama’s laughter used to ring through the house.

I haven’t heard Mama laugh like that for a long time, she thought as she lay hurting, listening to the sound of the wind whistling against the windowpane.

It sounded lonely.


CARIBBEAN SUNRISE

CHAPTER X

The tollgate was dark when they drove through. When they reached the stop sign, Lorenzo looked at his watch before pulling out onto the highway.

“In one hour Senorita, you will be back at your hotel‑” he was saying when, suddenly, the rear door on the passenger side was jerked open and a man jumped into the back seat.

“Start driving Senor!” he ordered.

Muy pronto!” he shouted, pointing a pistol to Lorenzo’s head.

Lorenzo pulled out onto the highway; the car picked up speed.

It had happened so fast, Megan was stunned. She started to turn in the seat and felt the hard metal of the gun against her ear.

“Look straight ahead Senorita,” the man said. “Do not do anything foolish and you will not be harmed.”

Where had she heard that voice before?

“Vamanos! Faster!” he ordered, pointing the gun back to Lorenzo’s head.

The car lurched from one side of the road to the other as Lorenzo tried to avoid the deep ruts in the rough highway. The speedometer inched toward seventy. Out of the corner of her eye, Megan could see the gun at Lorenzo’s ear wavering with the motion of the car. In the dim light from the dashboard, his face looked white and drawn, his eyes scared as he fought to keep the car under control.

“I am sorry Senorita ‑” he said.

“Be quiet!” ordered the man in the back seat. “Just drive!”

Suddenly, the headlights of another car appeared through the rear window.

“Drive faster!” shouted their passenger as the car trailing them pulled in close behind, dogging the rear bumper. “Get rid of that car or you are a dead mon!”

Oh God no! It can’t be! thought Megan remembering Kevin’s laugh earlier in the evening when Antonio had remarked that he was a very lucky “mon.”

Lorenzo pressed down on the accelerator. It was impossible to avoid the deep ruts at the speed they were traveling. Trying to keep from being tossed about, Megan braced herself against the armrest and the dashboard. She could see Antonio’s muscular arms gripping the back of the driver’s seat, his right hand holding the gun.

As the pursuing car continued to ride their rear bumper, several incidents passed through Megan’s mind, small things she’d thought unimportant at the time; paper bags passing from hand to hand at the bar, large peso notes which required no change, waking in the night and seeing three men huddled near the bar, the sound of someone hurrying through the bushes.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

What had happened in the past hour to change Antonio from the smiling, good-natured man she had joked with at the bar into this maniacal, gun-waving stranger?

Shall I tell him that I know who he is? she wondered. Or would his knowing place my life more in jeopardy?

Through the rear-view mirror on her door, she could now see three sets of headlights. Two more cars had joined in the chase. At the speed they were traveling, it was a wonder that Lorenzo still managed to hold the car to the badly potted road.

Suddenly, the lights glaring on the windshield grew dimmer. The first car had fallen back and the other two had followed suit. She felt, rather than saw, Antonio turn to look out the rear window. At the same time, Lorenzo’s foot softened against the accelerator.

Apparently, Antonio didn’t notice.

“You must be in a lot of trouble man,” Lorenzo said, trying to sound calm.

“Shut up and keep driving!” Antonio hissed.

He must be desperate, Megan thought. After the remark he made about a native harming an American tourist, he wouldn’t place my life in jeopardy unless he faces even more serious charges if he’s caught.

Perhaps he’d best not know that I know who he is, she decided.

Suddenly aware that Lorenzo had slackened their speed, Antonio began swearing in Spanish.

“What the hell you tryin’ to do mon?” he shouted, leaning forward and thrusting the gun against Lorenzo’s temple. “You tryin’ to get me caught?”

“No man!” Lorenzo said, slamming the accelerator to the floor. “They were slowing down and I thought ‑”

“You’re not here to think, mi amigo ‑ you just get this car down that road as fast as you can!” Antonio gritted through clenched teeth.

His attention divided between Lorenzo and the trailing cars, Antonio had been paying little attention to Megan but at this rate of speed, she could think of nothing she could do. Out of the corner of her eye, she could now see his profile clearly.

If only I’d wake up and find that this was only a horrible nightmare! she thought.

The pursuing cars had dropped some distance back but three sets of headlights were still visible through the rear-view mirror. Do the police know that I’m in the car? she wondered. What will happen to us if they give up the chase?

On the other hand, what would Antonio do if they were caught? Would he actually shoot?

Suddenly, Lorenzo jerked the steering wheel to the left to avoid a gaping three-foot rut in the right traffic lane and the car swerved out of control. Megan’s body slammed against the door, then she felt a rough jolt as the car left the road, plowed into a bank then rolled to the left. She heard a scream and what sounded like a wheel spinning in the air. There was the sound of screeching tires then shouts. She tried to open her eyes.

As if from a great distance, she heard a familiar voice shout: “Oh my God!” Then someone was lifting her, holding her, crooning in her ear “Querida! Querida! Oh God ‑ Querida!” And she remembered no more.



CUL DE SAC

Patricia King


Patricia's visit with her New York publisher over the holidays had been productive. Not only was he pleased with her progress on the travel book, he also approved the proposal for a book set in a retirement village.

“An interesting idea,” he said. “I’m curious to see how you handle it. Researchers are predicting a rapid increase in the number of people over age sixty in the next few years so we’ll be seeing more interest in matters concerning the aging.”

Patricia turned to her calendar. She should complete the first draft of the book in two or three months. There would be no need to remain after her lease expired in May.

She removed the manuscript from her attaché and slowly leafed through it, examining each character.

It’s amazing how complex simple, down-to-earth people can be, she thought.

She turned to the character based on Marcia but returned the manuscript to her attaché a moment later. She would have to give this one more time.

From the orange crate she withdrew the folder containing odds and ends of information about the man who developed Paradise Village. He fascinated her. Should I include his story in the book? she wondered. It would add intrigue, but would it benefit the story she wanted to tell?

She decided to have a cup of tea while she mulled it over. When she reached the kitchen, however, she changed her mind and decided to go for a walk. Susan and Granville Marsh should be having tea about now and they always seemed pleased to see her.

“You’ve lived in Paradise Village a long time,” Patricia said, sipping Susan’s special blend of tea. “What can you tell me about Robert Carson?”

Susan laughed.

“We don’t talk about Robert Carson here in the village, dear,” she said in a stage whisper. “Wherever did you hear of him?”

“His name came up a few times and I was curious, that’s all.”

“It all happened before we came here,” Susan said. “I don’t know why everyone is so secretive about it and I don’t know the entire story, but rumor has it that, had it not been for Robert Carson, there would be no Paradise Village. Granville can tell you more about him than I can—here he is now, ready for his tea.”

“Hello, Patricia,” Granville said, emerging from his den. “Glad you could join us.”

“Patricia was asking about Robert Carson dear,” Susan said, adding a squeeze of lemon to his tea. “I told her you knew more about him than I do.”

“Ah yes, Robert Carson,” Granville said, taking the cup Susan passed him. “Quite a man, from what I’ve heard. Well, let’s see—”  He took a sip of tea and continued. “As you’ve probably heard, Gerald Greene, a Memphis business man, owned the property. He and his family used it for a summer retreat. The story—as explained to me—is that Carson, who was from the west coast, convinced Greene he could make a pile of money if he turned it into a retirement resort.

“Greene was skeptical at first. However, the picture Carson painted of a luxurious retirement community, and the millions that could be made, was convincing. He agreed to Carson’s proposition; he would supply the land and Carson would develop—and promote—Paradise Village.”

“Why aren’t we supposed to talk about him?” Patricia asked.

“Rumors are that once the project got well underway—and proved to be as successful and profitable as Carson had predicted—Greene’s attorneys found a technicality in the contract agreement and he fired Carson,” Granville said.

“It seems that Carson, being a rather loud-mouthed, pompous individual, rubbed a lot of the ‘natives’ the wrong way,” Susan said. “They called him a ‘blow hard’

“Why?” Patricia asked.

“Because he made a lot of promises—promises they thought were impossible.”

“What kind of promises?”

“For one thing, he said that he was going to build five lakes—plus a golf course, an airport and a hospital,” Granville said.

“But all that is here—and much more,” Patricia exclaimed.

“Yes, and it’s ironic that many still think of him as a swindler who tried to ‘sell them a bill of goods’,” Granville said, then added, “When challenged, however, they grudgingly admit that, had it not been for Carson, there probably wouldn’t have been a Paradise Village.”

“What happened to Carson?”

“He obtained financial backing from a group of business men from up north and started a couple of other developments—right here in this area.”

“You mean Greystone Park and Rolling Hills?” Patricia asked.

Granville nodded.

“They weren’t as successful as Paradise Village—which was well on its way by then. Greene had better connections plus the financial assets to pull it off. Carson had great ideas but he was operating on a shoestring, so to speak.”

“Carson wasn’t as good a business man as Greene was,” Susan said. “His expertise was promotion. According to rumors, Greene wasn’t the only one to take advantage of the poor man—and to make a fortune from his ideas. They say that when Carson died, he was basically a pauper.”

Deep in thought, Patricia walked slowly home. The Carson story intrigued her, but should she pursue it? She would like to know more about the man that many pretended never existed; but would his story detract from the message she was trying to convey? Should she just file the information away and use it another time—perhaps as gist for another book?

I’ll have to think about it, she decided.

“Hi Patricia!” Audrey called out, bringing her out of her reverie.

“Hello girls,” Patricia replied, crossing to the freshly tilled garden to watch as Audrey busily raked up twigs and leaves while Donna collected them into trash bags.

Bordered by asparagus, rhubarb and beds of flowers, the large garden plot yielded enough vegetables yearly to feed the entire neighborhood, with enough left over to can and freeze for the winter months.

“Looks like you’re about ready to start planting,” Patricia said, adding, “I’ve often wished I had a green thumb.”

“It’s hard work,” Audrey said, “but we enjoy it.”

“I can hardly wait to start planting,” Donna said. “We’ve already ordered the seeds.”

Audrey and Donna are utterly charming, Patricia thought as she continued on her way. It had been difficult to draw them out at first but they were now fast friends. She enjoyed their company. Like the Marsh’s, they were better informed and more conversant than the average Paradise Village resident.

I wonder if anyone else in the village suspects the truth about them, she wondered, again, as she entered the information she had learned about Carson to the open file she had left on her desk.



JAMES AND JACK


CAMPING OUT


As twilight slowly faded into dark, and the stars began to glitter overhead, they stretched out and watched the fire die down, listening to the sounds of the night—the cicadas and the night birds, and the rippling of a nearby stream.

“Boy, this is the life,” James said.

“It certainly is,” Jack said dreamily.

“Hey, Jack, I’m still curious,” James said after a while. “You had a good thing going at the ranch; why did you decide to come along?”

Jack thought for a moment. The question was unexpected.

“Well, since you’re basically a greenhorn when it comes to travel, and I’ve been doing it all my life, I figured you could probably use a little help along the way,” he said teasingly.

James raised up on his elbows and gave him a stare.

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

Jack laughed.

“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

“Yeah, but you’d said you were tired of moving around—you were all set to settle down at the Circle T.”

Jack smiled to himself in the dark.

“You know, I’ve sort of wondered about that myself,” he said. “The only thing I can figure out is that it just didn’t seem right for you to be taking off without me.”

He paused.

“I guess I’ve just got to thinking of you as family,” he admitted.

For a few minutes, quiet reigned.

“Thank you,” James said then in a low voice.

As it grew late, only the night noises of the forest and the distant sound of an occasional car, speeding by on the highway, broke the silence, The campground, located about a quarter of a mile from the road, was deserted except for themselves.

“Anyway,” Jack said. “I’m still young. There’ll be plenty of time to settle down later and, like you said, this is good experience. Working at the Circle T, and now camping out like this! No telling what we’ll decide to do next!”

“That’s for damned sure,” James laughed.

“I wonder if there are any bears around here.” Jack mused a few minutes later.

“We’re in bear country,” James said. “Stands to reason there would be. Doubt if they’d be bold enough to come into camp. I don’t know though—you hear all kinds of stories.”

“I wonder if the manual says anything about bears, and what to do if one shows up,” Jack said.

“It’s a little late to check the manual now,” James said. “We’ll just have to hope they keep their distance—for tonight anyway; we don’t even have anything to protect ourselves if one does show up!”

“Except two pairs of long legs!” Jack said.

“We’ll just have to hope they’re fast enough!”

James’s remark so amused them that they burst out laughing hilariously.



17½ BIG STEPS

FELIPE (A PESCADOR)

 

The little fishing boats set out to sea in the half-light of dawn, casting dark shadows on the waters of the bay.  When the sun is high overhead they return, laden with fish.  As season follows season and the years flow onward like the tides, the young fishermen grow old and the old fishermen pass into the world of the forgotten.

Felipe Sandoval eased his boat onto the rocky beach, leaped out and secured it to the dock.  Though weary, his spirits lifted as they usually did when he returned to shore, his boat well-laden with fish.

Most of the boats had already docked when Felipe reached the shore.  Working rapidly, he unloaded his boat and spread the fish neatly on a table.  If they were not sold before the crowd dispersed, he would be walking the streets during the heat of the day peddling what was left.  The later they sold, the less he would receive for them.  No one wanted stale fish.

He eyed the crowd gathered on the beach.

Although some housewives sent maids, many trusted only themselves to choose the best from the fresh morning catch for the baked fish, tacos or soup they would serve for dinner.  Restaurateurs, too, vied for the finest fish from which they would prepare tempting dishes for their evening menus.  Merchants bought large quantities to dress and sell to those who rose too late to buy off the boats.

On this day, business was good.  After the shoppers’ inspection, Felipe carefully wrapped their selection in a sheet of newspaper.

Once the crowd dispersed, he put aside the two remaining small fish to cook for his supper then counted his pesos.  He frowned.  Despite the fine catch, he had netted barely enough to pay for repairs on his boat, buy a little food and take Gabriela to the cinema.

He sighed.

The life of a fisherman is not an easy one, he thought as he headed toward his humble abode.

Felipe wanted to get married.  But how could he support a wife when his business yielded hardly enough for him to live on?

It was no easier now that he owned his own boat than when he worked for Carlos Sanchez who owned a fleet of fishing vessels.

He had worked hard for Carlos.  And he had saved his money to buy a boat of his own.  Working for himself, he thought, would yield greater profits and he and Gabriela could marry.  But it hadn’t gone as planned.

The boat he purchased from Carlos was old.  He had patched and painted it and tuned up the motor; however, the engine needed an overhaul badly—an overhaul for which he never seemed to find funds.  Each morning, he willed the small craft into action, coaxing it out to sea, then back to shore.  He spent as much time working on it as he did fishing and though his hopes had been high when he purchased the boat, he soon discovered that the expense of keeping it in service ate up most of his profits.

It had run smoothly this morning, but he never knew what to expect from day to day.

To make matters worse, Gabriela was becoming more insistent that they marry.

“I am receiving other proposals, you know,” she said.  “If you refuse to set a date, I will be forced to marry someone else.”

Although she had been saying that for two years, Felipe knew she loved him as much as he loved her.  He doubted she would carry out her threat.

But what if she did?  He could not expect a red-blooded young Mexican woman like Gabriela to wait forever.

As he neared home, Gabriela came to meet him.  She looked so beautiful in her bright blue skirt and shawl he wished with all his heart he could marry her this very day.

“I could take a job in the kitchen of one of the big, new tourista hotels,” she had said only yesterday.

But Filipe, a proud man, said no.

“But many wives take jobs these days,” she argued.

In spite of her coaxing, Felipe refused to become the husband of a woman who worked in someone else’s kitchen—even if it were a fine hotel.

He wondered why he was so stubborn; other men allowed their wives to work and, with two incomes, lived very well.

“If you don’t stop being so stubborn, Felipe Sandoval, you are going to die an old bachelor!” Gabriela had screamed.

As his ability to support a wife showed no signs of improving, Felipe lay awake far into night thinking, trying to come up with an answer.  It had become a great weight on his shoulders.

He realized that, no matter how hard he worked as a fisherman, he would never become a rich man—how could he when he couldn’t even earn a living?  In spite of his hopes at the time, buying the boat had been a mistake; a brave but futile gesture.  His hopes died a little more each day as the boat, tossed by the waves for many years, grew weaker and the engine developed additional problems.

No, he admitted to himself, this is not the way.

He was thankful for a woman who loved him and who wanted to marry him—no matter if he was rich or poor—but he was growing older each day and, one day, he would be an old man with nothing to show for the many years of hard work.

Would he then allow his wife, no longer young and beautiful, to work in someone else’s kitchen to support him?

The next morning, his boat refused to start and the others were well ahead when he finally putt-putted out to sea.  He lowered his nets but Felipe’s thoughts had turned inward.

“I cannot continue to do this,” he told himself, ignoring his nets, his eyes oblivious to the bright new day.  “When I am able to provide for Gabriela, we will marry—if she has not married with another.”

If I must, I will let her go, he thought, brushing a tear from his eye.

How many lives have you taken? He wondered as he stared into the black depths of the sea.  How many souls have you laid to rest?  Would it not be better to surrender to the sea than to live a life of poverty without the woman I love?

When he saw the others heading in, Felipe followed, unmindful that all the boats except his were laden with fish.  Felipe had made a decision and, as the small boat chugged toward the shore his heart, though a little fearful, felt lighter.

He docked, leaped out of the boat and, without bothering to unload his meager catch, went in search of Carlos Sanchez.  He found him over-seeing his men as they unloaded his boats.  Felipe stood to one side, waiting until he was free.

“How much will you give me for my boat?” he asked then.

Carlos was not surprised; he had expected Felipe before now.  Another man, less determined, would have quit long ago.

“Eet is very old,” Carlos stalled.  “Eet is not worth much.”

“It was old when I bought it from you,” Felipe said.  “Now it is painted and patched and the motor runs.  How much?”

“Wella, I don’ know—”

“Forget the money I put into it.  Give me what I paid for it and it is yours,” Felipe said.

Carlos did not reply at once.  I can still re-sell it at a profit, he thought.

“Is it a deal or not?” Felipe said impatiently.

He is very anxious, Carlos thought.  He made a decision.

“I will give you one hundred fifty thousand pesos,” he said.

Felipe had paid him two hundred thousand; Carlos was prepared to go up twenty five thousand more.

But today, Felipe had no time for haggling.

“I’ll take it,” he said and held out his hand.

“I do not have that much money with me,” Carlos objected.

“Then let us go to the bank.”

Carlos smiled, shaking his head in amusement.  Calling to his men that he would return soon, he followed Felipe up the boardwalk.

Twenty minutes later, the transaction was completed.  Felipe turned and walked rapidly toward the heart of the city while Carlos scratched his head.

“Caramba!” he muttered.  “I should have offered him less.”

As he walked, Felipe mentally added the money Carlos gave him for the boat to his meager savings.  He now had two hundred and thirty thousand pesos—approximately one hundred American dollars.

He hoped it was enough.  If not, he would have to figure out a way to get more.

The secretary ushered Felipe into Lorenzo Martinez’s luxuriously furnished private office and quietly closed the door.  Martinez, elated to see a paying customer, rose from his desk and shook his hand.

A fisherman, he thought, appraising Felipe, and mentally calculated how much he might be worth.  Not much, he decided; but a low paying customer was better than no customer at all.

“Sit down, my friend.  What may I do for you?” he asked.

“I wish to go to Los Estados Unidos,” Felipe replied.  “Immediately.”

“I see,” said Lorenzo.

Ah!  He is in a hurry,” he thought.  If he is in trouble, I want no part of him.  I want no problem with la policia.

His relationship with “la policia” was good.  They stopped by now and then—to see that everything was well with his little business; always pocketing a ten thousand peso note as they went out the door.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asked Felipe.

“I am not making a decent wage fishing,” Felipe replied.  “I want to get married and I cannot until I have more to offer my woman.”

Lorenzo sighed with relief.

“Ah, I see.”

In his business he heard this story often—though not always stated so bluntly.  It was always the money—money for the wife, the sweetheart, the mother, the children.  Bless the women of Mexico.  Were it not for them, his business would be much less lucrative.

“How much will it cost?” Felipe asked.

“How much do you have?” Lorenzo countered.

“I sold my boat to raise the money.  I have only one hundred fifty thousand pesos,” Felipe lied.  He would need enough for food until he was sure of work.

“One hundred fifty thousand pesos is not much,” Lorenzo mused.  “First, we must get you to the border; there are people who must be paid for that and the man who will take you to the fields must have money for the gas—”

Felipe decided to be firm.

“I am sorry, but that is all I have.  I will find another way.”

He rose as if to go.

“Una momento,” Lorenzo motioned for him to resume his seat.

“I like you, Felipe.  You are a credit to our village.  Perhaps we can work something out.”

He sat thinking then, as though making a decision, he turned back to his client.  A few minutes later, it was agreed that Felipe would join a group of men who were leaving this very night.

“Do not take much with you,” Lorenzo said.  “Only a small package that you can hold on your lap.  It is not only because the truck is crowded, but also because we must sometimes find ingenious ways to avoid detection by the policia.