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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  September 2010


One of the pleasures of a well-written story is its ability to take us back in time. In this tale, Patricia Conway brings to life a time when America was at war and some feared invasion — when buying a car, even a used one, represented a leap of faith. Perhaps the setting seems so vivid because it's not so much different from today.


The '37 Chevy

He tried not to think about how much he feared a Japanese invasion, because he knew if one thought about something too much one could make it happen.

By Patricia Conway


Fermin wondered once again what to do. The dark night around him had no answer. Buying the patron's automobile was not as simple an idea as it might seem. What would happen to him if he bought it? It was a 1937 Chevy, and the patron had offered it to him a month ago on the day after the Japanese had surrendered.

"Now that the war is over," the patron had said, "they'll be making new cars and I want to buy one. If you'd like to have the Chevy, I'll sell it to you for $75."

"When do you think you will be able to buy a new car, patron?" Fermin had asked.

"Oh, it probably won't be for quite a while, maybe several months. You have plenty of time to think about it." He was a good patron. The wages he paid them were among the highest in the valley at 50 cents an hour. On Christmas Day every year he brought each family a large box containing canned goods, sacks of flour, sugar, coffee and masa harina, the corn flour from which they made tortillas. There was also a special treat such as a turkey or a ham, and apples, oranges, nuts and ribbon candies for the children.

The idea of buying a car had stunned Fermin. He had over $150 that he had saved during the past four years, hiding it in a coffee tin in a hole beneath the chicken roosts behind his house. But he had not been saving the money for a car. It had been for his family in case the war went badly and they had been forced to flee from enemy troops. Now he found it difficult to switch his thinking and consider using the money for a thing as unexpected as a car.

Beside the gate of the irrigation ditch, he listened to the water gurgling into the cotton field. The Coleman lantern on the ground made a small circle of light in the blackness that stretched around him in all directions. In the lantern light his black eyes and hair under his wide-brimmed hat disappeared into the night. His dog Fantasmo was a white blur beside him. The September night was deeply still and the air warm above the coolness created by the irrigation water. Fermin's small, wiry body was tense in the darkness. There was nothing out there except the West Texas cotton fields and the soil and the water. There were also crickets and frogs, which made their rhythmic, pulsing sounds, but they could not harm anyone.

But he thought about La Llorona who had killed her children and now searched for them, her cries of guilt and grief freezing one's blood. He had never actually seen La Llorona or heard her cries, but he did not doubt her existence. Nor did he doubt that he once had seen his dead grandfather walking along a dirt road of the farm in the golden, dusty light of late afternoon. Later Fermin had asked his wife Soledad, "Who was the old man and what did he want?"

"What old man?" she asked.

"The one who was walking on the road to our house this afternoon."

"There was no old man," she had said, her slim back to him as she washed the supper dishes. Her long hair was pulled together at the nape of her neck and fell in a thick, blue-black river to below her waist.

"Yes, there was," Fermin had insisted. "You must have seen him. He was headed right for the house."

Soledad had turned to look at him, her hands encased in white gloves of soap foam. She had smiled indulgently. "You must have been imagining things. There was no old man on the road today." Her eyes were dark pools of warmth that gleamed in the light of the lantern on the table.

"But I saw him. His hair was white and he had a cane." The anxiety in his voice sank into her silence. Then it came to him that the old man must have been his grandfather.



Beside him on the ditch bank, Fantasmo growled once low in his throat. Fermin could hear in the distance the high-pitched bark of a dog on some neighboring farm. He was glad Fantasmo was with him, although that short, menacing growl momentarily scared him and made him wonder what Fantasmo was really saying. Fermin told himself not to think about being afraid, to tend the water and think about the car instead.

What would his grandfather say about it? Would he think it was a good idea? Had he ever even seen a car? Without meaning to, Fermin had an image suddenly of the last time he had seen his grandfather. It was 1915 and Fermin was six years old. His father and the other revolutionaries had left three days before to fight with Zapata again. They had returned bringing the bodies of four of the men of their small village of Morelos. Among the dead was his grandfather. Fermin's father had lifted the body out of the cart carefully and laid it on the ground. Fermin could hear again his mother's cry that began as a moan deep in her throat and escalated to a wail that took itself far up into the sky and hung there next to the sun. Across his grandfather's chest were three neatly spaced holes, and on his face was an expression of mild surprise, as if he had just discovered something.

Fermin had wanted to ask what it was, but his father had spoken: "Take your mother inside."

The next five years were unclear in his memory. The family was hungry all the time, and his father was gone for long periods. He did remember distinctly, however, the little spiders of fear that crawled up and down his skin the first time his father left after bringing back his grandfather. He had stood looking down at Fermin in the dirt in front of the house, and his black eyes had blazed. "I have to go to the revolution again," he had said. "You must take my place here. Watch out for your brother and sister. Guard your mother."

As his father had turned to go, Fermin had felt his skin and bones tremble. A great shriek of terror rose from under his rib cage, but when it got to his mouth Fermin had clenched his teeth in time to keep it from escaping.

Finally, in 1920, Fermin's father had decided there was nothing more for them in Mexico. The Zapatistas had been neutralized by the death of their leader, and the revolution appeared to have no end. Fermin remembered nothing of their escape except their approach to Juarez on the border of the United States. From where he lay on top of the train he and his family were traveling on, he had been able to see men on horses. They were riding frantically and firing wildly at other men on other horses. Fermin kept lifting his head to get a better view, and his mother kept shoving his head down to keep him from being shot, all the while screaming at him words he could not hear. Her long black hair blew uncontrollably about her face, and Fermin had thought suddenly that she was very pretty.



Fantasmo's head nudging against his knee brought him out of his reverie. He felt again the handle of the shovel and became aware of the water flowing around his feet. It had broken through from a gopher hole somewhere and was starting to flood, crumbling the side of the ditch as it came. For the next several minutes, Fermin shoveled frantically to get the water under control. Finally he got it stopped.


 


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