Julie Booker, May 1968, outside Delano, California
Julie drove as fast as her headlights would allow along the deserted two-lane road. Where was the friggin’ mailbox?
She’d screwed up, and now they’d taken Carlos.
The bartender had said to take a dirt road just past a big white mailbox …. There.
A beige pickup was coming out of the road. She slammed the brakes, staring into the other vehicle, hoping it would be them, hoping he was okay. No—some other man inside. She let the truck pull out, swung the Camaro to the right, and hit the accelerator.
Back at the bar, she’d been overwhelmed. Hadn’t expected The Bastard to show up, hadn’t imagined he’d come stomping in with a deputy sheriff in full uniform, the two of them like a couple of cowboys. They’d yanked Carlos from his chair and shouted, “Come with us, you wetback scum,” as they dragged him to the exit.
The Bastard must have followed her there; that was the only way he could have found Carlos. Her fault!
She had watched like a helpless fool as they took him, watched along with a dozen other bar patrons. At the door, the deputy turned back and called out, “Don’t worry, folks. This man’s a thief who needs setting straight.” But anyone could have seen the brutal way he had Carlos’s arm bent up behind him, his dear mouth twisted in pain.
By the time she’d recovered, they were gone. And her only clue was what the deputy said next: “After we have a little talk we’ll just take him home.” Which could have been total BS.
If the barman’s directions were right, Carlos’s place should be coming up. A couple of mobile homes out in the fields … She spotted the lights of the first one now, through the light evening mist—the one where Carlos lived.
Only one car out front—nothing fancy like The Bastard drove, no sheriff’s car either. She skidded to a stop and jumped out of the Camaro
A woman opened the door of the mobile home a crack and peeked out, then threw it wide open. She was tall and voluptuous, with long black hair. She waved her arms and screamed something Julie didn’t catch, then covered her face with her hands.
Julie shot up the stairs and tore the woman’s hands from her face. “Are you María?” she asked in Spanish.
Tears streamed through black smudges under the woman’s eyes. “They’re going to kill him! That’s what the pig, Hiram Booker, shouted. He came with police, made Carlos kneel in the dirt como un matón and smashed his head with a gun.”
Julie flinched, releasing her hold on the woman. “Booker is my friggin’ father. Did Carlos move after that?”
“No … maybe. Yes. They broke our window and threatened us. I thought they were going to take me, but they just threw Carlos back in the car and drove off.”
María pointed down the road.
“What’s out there?”
“Cotton fields. Miles of them.”
“Come with me.” Julie gestured to her car.
María backed up a step, eyeing her.
“Help me save him,” Julie demanded.
The woman nodded, but she kept backing inside. With the door almost shut, she spoke through a crack. “That crazy pendejo, Booker. I want nothing to do with him. Please.”
“Fuck you.” Julie ran to her car.
A minute later she was racing down the rutted road, a red reflection in her mirror, billowing dust lit by her taillights. Ahead, the dirt road in the tunnel of the headlights, stubby cotton plants close on either side. No side roads, no sign of where they’d taken Carlos.
What had she done? Carlos had a wife and family in Mexico. What would happen to them if The Bastard killed him?
A flicker off to the left and a track that ran between the plants. She skidded and turned in. A clearing. A car with headlights shining on two men, no, three; one was kneeling on the ground. The two standing men turned toward her—her father and the one in the tan deputy’s uniform.
She slammed the car into park and jumped out. She saw blood on the kneeling man’s face—Carlos’s dear face.
April 1994, Santa Lucia, California
Julie shook her head to clear it. That memory of the night in the cotton fields had been vivid this time. No question why; she’d just sent Lilia to find Carlos in Mexico. Now the memories, good and bad, flooded in. She had to focus on the best times with Carlos and put the horrors out of her head. But horrors had a way of creeping in, and the sleeping pill she’d taken didn’t help. Don’t dream about it, she told herself. Dream about Lilia meeting Carlos.
Carlos Montoya, April 1994, Michoacán State, Mexico
Carlos sat on a barstool at the cantina, nursing his second beer, struggling to follow one of his wife’s last requests: “You’re a good man, querido,” said Isabel. “When I’m gone, don’t lose yourself in drink like those miserables at the cantina.” Miserables was a good description of the regulars here, and Carlos feared becoming like them. So, he only came once a week now—Sunday evenings, to watch the nine o’clock sports show on the big TV. Beer and highlights of the week’s fútbol matches distracted him, but, when the news came on, he would disappear into the night.
Finishing his beer, he ordered a shot of tequila.
Sorry to say, but he looked forward to these pathetic Sunday evenings almost as much as he did to the meals he shared with his daughters, Rita and Anita. The rest of the time, when he wasn’t talking to his sheep or trimming fruit trees at his ranchito, he watched mindless comedy shows on TV—he’d finally given in and bought one. Small comforts to take up the lonely hours. Anything to avoid drinking.
He glimpsed his image in the mirror behind the bar. Well-shaven; he made sure every day. Lonely as hell, but not miserable, not like those first weeks after Isabel died. It took a silent conversation with Isabel’s picture to convince him. “You shame me, querido,” she’d said.
The bar was dark, the men familiar, but not one of them a friend. His friends, his cousins, were up north this time of year. These men were just loud, happy voices, cheering for one team or another on the TV screen.
The sports show ended, and a preview of the news began, showing a California politician denouncing illegal immigration. “They rob good Americans of jobs and gobble our tax dollars for medical care. Their children suck up space in our classrooms while we pay the tab.”
Why didn’t Carlos leave? Why stay to see the painful images of protesters marching in California and police with helmets and batons strapped to their belts, glaring at the crowd, like back in the 1960s. Those hateful policía del Norte triggered memories he’d pushed down deep.
Don’t think about it. Get out.
Carlos gulped the tequila and took his solitary walk four times around town before ambling back to his empty house. A pause outside the front door. No more cantina tonight, he told himself. Keep your dignity. You owe it to Isabel.
In bed, the usual questions nagged at him. Why go to the cantina every week? Was he that desperate to be in the presence of others who were not friends? And why Sunday? That one was easy—his senseless rebellion against God.
Late the next afternoon in his kitchen, Carlos resisted the urge to drink a beer and turned to his breakfast dishes in the sink. He thought of Isabel, quietly singing to herself as she cleaned the dishes. Sweet songs—he wished he could remember them all—but one was the old favorite:
“Ay, ay, ay, ay, Canta y no llores …”
He would sneak up from behind, wrap his arms around her, and she would laugh as he murmured “Cielito lindo, mi corazón.” He could hear her even now in his empty kitchen—not her words, but that delighted, carefree laugh.
He ran a sponge over the plate, rinsed the coffee cup, and set them both on the counter. He left the frying pan in the sink. It would soon be cooking his dinner.
A knock on the front door.
As Carlos opened it, his stomach upended. The attractive woman on his front step looked so much like María—the María of all those years ago. But this one in khaki pants and a blousy red shirt was under forty and willowy.
She watched him as she spoke carefully in Spanish, “Excuse me. I’m looking for Señor Carlos Montoya.”
“Great!” she said in English. And then Spanish again. “I’ve come from California, the United States, to find you.”
The woman had Mexican blood, no doubt, and her Spanish was fluent, but she couldn’t have been raised here. She’d referred to that all-consuming country up north as the “United States” instead of “the other side,” a place you would enter in desperation, seeking morsels for your family—a place where they’d persecute a man without cause.
Besides those dark brown eyes and long black hair, she didn’t resemble María so much, did she? But the idea of María upset him.
He realized he was staring. “Why me?”
“Julie Booker sent me.”
Julie, after all these years! He brightened at the thought and led the woman inside, where he gestured toward the pale green armchair near the door, the one with no coffee stain. “Would you like tea? Lemonade? Ice water?”
Rather than sit, she stepped toward the side table, focusing on a photograph of Carlos with Isabel. “Lemonade, if it’s no trouble.”
He hadn’t wanted company, and her arrival reminded him again of those repulsive news stories from the North: helmeted police, angry Latinos. And now she followed him to the kitchen. As he opened the refrigerator, he asked, “Did they drive you out of your country, those Anglos in California? They revile us now. I see pictures on the news.”
“There’s no problem there, Señor Montoya.”
Lying about California. Why?
Carlos poured from the jug, hoping she wouldn’t notice his awkward right arm, the fingers that refused to straighten all the way.
He noticed the way the woman’s eyes scanned his kitchen—judging him for the dirty pan in his sink? Fidgeting a bit, but not doing badly for one who’d invited herself into a strange man’s home.
Back in the living room, she settled into the armchair, Carlos on the sofa. “My name is Lilia Gomez. I’m a kindergarten teacher. On weekends, I work for Julie.” She gave him an enticing smile, the way María used to do. Ha! “I’ve come to Mexico for two weeks to learn from some of your teachers.”
“Excellent, Señorita Gomez. There’s much to learn here in Mexico that you wouldn’t discover in that land of ignorance up north.”
Lilia tensed. “It’s obvious you dislike the United States. Maybe you have reason. But Julie hopes you don’t resent her.”
“I could never.”
“Good. She sent this note for you.”
Lilia handed him a sealed envelope.
Inside Carlos found a letter written in neat cursive Spanish.
It’s been over 25 years since we saw each other, but I think of you every day.
I was sad to hear you’d lost Isabel. My heart goes out to you. My life is screwed up now, too. Do you remember those English words I taught you? We really educated each other, didn’t we?
I’ve sent my friend Lilia to ask a favor of you. But first, please spend some time with her. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her company. Tell her about our days in Santa Lucia back in 1967. The Summer of Love. Remember? As you think back to our passionate Wednesdays, maybe you’ll forgive the pain I caused, and then you will agree to grant me this favor. It’s very important, or I wouldn’t ask.
Con mucho cariño,
Carlos seldom thought about the three women who’d changed his life all those years ago—avoided the memories intentionally. Now two of them were reaching out: Julie, whose fingertips would have touched this letter, and María, in the dark eyes and delicate hands that delivered it.
Lilia held her glass in front of her, the brim obscuring her chin. “So, tell me about those days in Santa Lucia.”
The North invaded Carlos’s life every day. Townspeople would speak of a son who crossed the border to work in a factory. He would hear of the way ranchers up there cheated Mexicans out of their wages; of people who’d been arrested at the border or even after they’d begun to work in North American cities. Now that despicable proposed law in California and the protests against it. “Please. Tell me what Julie wants from me.”
She shook her head, black hair brushing her shoulders. “I can’t. Not yet.”
“And what’s happened to her? Her letter said …”
“I can’t speak of that.”
“You say nothing, and yet you ask for …?”
“Quite a bit. I know.” She gave a little smile, those dark eyes coaxing. “It’s what Julie wants. Tell me what happened between the two of you.”
Pretty smile, ugly question. “My memories of that place are better left asleep.”
“Julie told me they treated you badly.”
He snorted. “It’s a cruel place.”
“There’s so much that’s good. I’m sorry you didn’t see it.” She paused, and said, “I’m proud of my country.”
Carlos’s heartbeat kicked up. All right, since she demanded it, he would give her a dose of truth. “Proud? Norteamericanos are bloated with arrogant pride. We Mexicans are far more welcoming. In our culture, we open our homes to strangers.”
Lilia’s smile vanished as she sipped her lemonade.
“I can tell you how I was welcomed at the ranch of Julie’s father with my cousin Rafael,” he continued “Do you care to hear?”
She slid back in her chair, looking uneasy. “I’m listening.”
“A foreman—his name was Ruiz—he told us to wait in the dirt outside the big white house while he summoned his patrón. You know him? Señor Hiram Booker.”
“Julie’s father. We never met. He died years ago.”
Carlos found images coming back, bitter feelings, and he told her.
April 1967, Santa Lucia
Señor Booker came halfway down the stairs and looked over Carlos and Rafael with haughty gray eyes, his mouth working as though he were chewing a bitter root. Booker was tall, about fifty, his sun-dried face creased like a squashed prune. Instinctively Carlos whipped off his hat, but Rafael gave Carlos a slow, ironic glance before removing his own.
After years of coming north for work, Carlos was used to getting surly looks, although his gut never failed to clench in response. Would there be work this time? If not, would this patrón sneer and insult them or wish them well before sending them off?
Booker said something to Ruiz, who pointed to Rafael’s sombrero de vaquero, and told him to, “Toss it on the ground.” Bewildered, Rafael dropped the hat. Booker marched down the remaining steps and stomped on it. The hat was made of stiff cane, and it crunched as the patrón ground it under his heavy boots—right and left, right and left, all the time staring at Rafael.
“Put it on,” Booker said in English. Rafael was shaking, and Carlos didn’t know if it was from anger or fear, or whether his cousin might lash out and put them both in danger. Rafael grimaced and picked up the filthy sombrero. He crammed his fist into it to put it back in shape and stuck it on his head, dirt flaking onto his face.
“Next time don’t be slow to show respect,” Booker said. “You want a job?”
“Yes, sir,” Rafael said.
He looked at Carlos. “You?”
“Yes, I do.”
Later that evening, Rafael said, “It doesn’t bother me. He’s just displaying his big cojones for Ruiz, like the purple feathers of a prancing peacock.” But Carlos saw the way Rafael’s eyes narrowed whenever the patrón came around. He felt his cousin’s shame as well as his own for failing to object to their treatment, and for groveling to secure work.
Carlos carried that humiliation in his heart as Ruiz showed them the bunkhouse. Before leaving, Ruiz said, in his coarse Spanish, “You’re lucky to have these bunks close by the latrine. And those fine lumpy mattresses … Gracias a Dios.” Then in English, “Welcome to America.”
“So that was our welcome to the Booker Ranch, and it wasn’t the first time I’d been treated that way during six years coming to your country,” he told Lilia.
Carlos felt the tension in his jaw and saw Lilia sitting rigid. He lowered his voice. “So, when I speak of the Norte’s disdain for us, I speak not just about the television news.”
She frowned but didn’t turn away. “Not everyone in the United States is kind, and not everyone’s cruel. Mexicans can be mean, too. If you believe so deeply in hospitality, does it bother you that you’re making me uncomfortable?”
He felt a twinge of guilt. This young woman was no weakling. She hadn’t deserved an angry lecture. And truthfully, some of his patrones in the North had been cordial, if not generous. “I’m sorry … truly.” Lilia’s arrival had caught him by surprise, but why had her defense of the North made him so angry? “What can I do to make you feel better?”
“Tell me about your time with Julie.”