The Pacific Coast, Rural Sonoma County, July 17th, 1990
I favor the path of least resistance. But unfortunately, law enforcement takes a dim view of a self-reliant problem solver whose solutions to threats often leave death and destruction in his wake. Though I never killed a man who didn’t deserve dying, self-preservation required I live by the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin: ‘Three may keep a secret if two are dead. A reminder that unless something changed soon, I would reveal secrets best left buried forever beneath time’s relentless march into oblivion.
The sun chased away the morning twilight as I stood alone on the rocky bluff overlooking the mighty Pacific. Contrary to my wife’s beliefs, my attraction to this scenic outlook doesn’t lie in the pristine beauty. Instead, I come to pay homage to the length mother nature takes to conceal her savage nature, and study the similarity to my life.
I remain lost in the captivating allure of nature’s mystic contradictions. The waves crashed beneath me, their thunderous roar a backdrop to the wind screaming through the trees and forcing even the mighty redwoods to bow in submission to an unseen power. Yet, in the distance, a wisp of fog provides a beautiful contrast to the deep greens and blues of nature’s tranquil majesty.
But this morning an underlying tension hung in the air like a bitter perfume, threatening to reveal my past and all the deeds destined to never see justice or recognition.
I maintain no shame for the fortune accumulated in the service of my country all those years ago. I learned from the best and followed the lead of those stealthy individuals in the U.S. government who aren’t very talkative about the methods used to finance black ops. They did what they felt necessary, and I had a future to finance, even if I drifted off the reservation.
But last night, my wife’s angelic face contorted in anguish and threatened to undo everything. She demanded the one thing I could never provide ... No matter the pain endured.
I snap my collar to combat the sting of a briny mist rising from the ocean waves crashing onto the serpentine cliff face. Inhaling profoundly, I bow my head to pray for guidance before my wife ruins everything.
Yet, with fate threatening this morning, she smiled with carefree innocence as she scanned our property from the veranda. And as her gaze eventually settled on me standing atop the bluffs, she waved and called my name: “Buck!”
What inherent power do wives possess to ensure they interrupt at the exact moment you’re at one with the universe? Or could this be another heavenly test? I inhaled the warm salted vanilla aroma of sea blending with the pines and rolled my eyes upward to search the clouds for the hidden celestial city. And a smile slowly spread as the haunting cry of wind and crash of an angry ocean screamed their warning.
Her eyes never left me, and her lips formed a defiant slit as she descended the steps in queenly air. The broad brim of her hat waves a greeting as she asks, “Are you ready, honey?”
Her beauty had not changed since first captivating me all those years ago. Even though our trials and tribulations molded us into who we are today, our love remains constant. But contrary to her intentions, things aren’t ending well this time.
With a heavy heart, I begrudgingly turned away from the sea and walked towards the scenic house in the pines. If only her gratitude rose to the level of her curiosity.
I stopped at arm’s length and stared into those hypnotic emerald orbs forming a pathway to her soul. And that look in her eyes told me she knew something was wrong. Maybe it was intuition or possibly an understanding of my moods better than anyone else, but either way, she knew dark secrets lay hidden beneath my gruff facade.
For an eternity, neither of us spoke as I struggled to find the words to pacify her inquisitive nature without giving away too much of the truth.
“Listen,” I said finally, my voice barely more than a whisper in the wind. “It’s not too late to change your mind.” Her head tilted, and unable to bear the intensity a moment longer, my gaze shifted away from hers.
The tap of her foot marks time as she stands beside the car clad in earth tones. However, she always wears sky blue if she’s in a good mood. “What’s wrong?” She asks with her arms folded over her chest.
I shake my head. “Nothing to worry about.”
Did she roll her eyes at me? I hate those oversized sunglasses.
A tilt of her head and a hint of a smile replaces the frown. “And what imaginary demons are you protecting me from this time?”
“Take long to develop that hair-brained idea?” Did she think I’d slip and tell her something incriminating?
Her gruff tone gives way to a smile. “All it took was a morning of you growling like an old bear.”
“I presume you plan to tell me what you’re talking about?”
“You manage anger with silence, and you haven’t stopped complaining all day,” she says, climbing into the car. She clicks her seatbelt. “You need another plan, big boy. Because there’s no way in hell this one’s working.”
“Here we go again, and I suppose you have no intention of telling me what on earth you’re rambling about?”
“Don’t play dumb with me. A blind man can see you started a fight to get out of telling me about the life you’ve kept from me.”
She stares from the passenger seat as I close the door and says, “Thank you.”
My hand hovers over the gearshift lever, and I cautiously nod. “Which of the multiple deeds of goodwill am I appreciated for this time?”
“For trusting me enough to share what you’re keeping from me,” she says, facing the window.
I rolled my eyes with a snort.
She uses the selective hearing weapon, ignoring me.
I ponder my options as we glide down the winding drive through the redwood grove. Do I continue with the usual nothing to see here or throw caution to the wind and disclose how El Sigiloso received his name?
Finally, our eyes meet, and her smile spread. I cleared my throat. “Ok, Missy, let’s do this thing.”
She folds her arms. “About time.”
“Did I ever mention my childhood?”
“Are you kidding me?” She stares accusingly. “You keep secrets better than the CIA.”
A Freudian slip? I drive away the thought with a nod and open my mind to reveal how I reached this point. Youthful insecurities played a significant role in my development. I smile as images of that ornery kid of my youth flow through my mind.
Dos Palos Elementary School, November 10th, 1955
A mysterious wisp of fog floated across the playground and settled over the children gathered by the swings. The place Robert Johnson made clear I wasn’t welcome on the second day of school. But with time, my bruised eye healed, and Linda Ferrari still spent every recess there. And despite what anybody else wants, I’m spending my time where Linda is, and anybody messing with my plans better bite down hard because things are about to go south in a hurry.
Robert’s younger brother Ricky talked to Linda, but he wasn’t the Johnson I had my eye on. My fists clenched tighter with each step until I stood just three steps away from Robert himself. Everyone else instinctively moved away as tension rose in anticipation - even the Gram brothers, who slapped Robert’s back and laughed moments before, now stepped aside without a word.
Robert sneered with a sideways grin. “Hey guys, the dummy’s back for another butt whipping!”
Linda’s cackling laughter rang out above the others. My face burned red as rage rose, and my legs trembled.
He took another step forward, pointing a mocking finger at me, and said, “You’re one dumb hayseed for coming out here again!”
My gaze never left Robert’s as his taunts grew louder. He kept pushing forward until he bent over to place his face mere inches from mine. Then, loud enough for her to hear every word, his eyes dart to Linda, and he asks me, “Are you ready to cry?”
It happened so fast that none of them even saw it coming. In one swift motion, I swung with all my might; like a hammer hitting stone, my right fist caught him square in the mouth. On my next blow, his nose crunched like a grape - sending him crashing back onto the ground; his eyes bulged as he spits blood and his front tooth - but I was just getting started; I straddled his shoulders and continued swinging.
Some girls ran screaming while everyone else stood in stunned silence, watching on with wide-eyed amazement or maybe fear; I had promised those that laughed some of the same retribution last time...
It wasn’t until Mr. Sims appeared out of nowhere to snatch me off Robert and carry me off by the back of my belt that everyone began talking in confused chatter about what they’d just witnessed!
He carried me through hallways and past the reception desk towards his office, where the secretary stared as she slowly shook her head as he mumbled about how often he needed to attend to this issue...
Inside his office, he sat me on the floor facing his desk, saying: “Buck, if you ever expect to get out of second grade, you need to stop fighting.” Then, shaking his head, he asks, “Why are you always getting into these messes?”
I shrug, not wanting to disclose too much about the guys picking on me because of words getting jumbled up or my stutter...
“Buck, you’re in my office more than I am. Mind telling me why that is?”
I squinted, wondering why he would ask such an obvious question. “Cause this is where you take me when I get in a fight?”
He stares at the ceiling. “Didn’t we agree last time that you’d stop fighting?”
I nod. “Last time, you said don’t fight kids in my class.”
Mr. Simms nods.
“Robert’s a six grader,” I shrug.
Mr. Sims muttered something about me being jail bound before Mrs. Billings suddenly appeared at the door and announced Buck’s father was waiting outside! This only earned us another long and frustrated sigh from our principal, who knew better than anyone how much trouble this student could cause...
Western Merced County, the Central San Joaquin Valley, July 17th, 1990
Pacheco Boulevard cuts through the heart of Los Banos and past the place of my birth. But the ninety-year-old hospital is now a Century-21 office. And gridlock traffic on the highway replaces the quiet streets of my youth as progress and time take their toll. But in my mind’s eye, I only see the world of my memory.
New businesses and residential developments replace the farmland and open spaces bordering Los Banos. I silently trudge on and discover a barren alkali flat replaces the lush wetlands forming the city’s eastern outskirts. Even the railroad tracks alongside Santa Fe Grade are missing.
Over the former home to millions of his kind, a lone mallard jukes and dives until he vanishes into an endless expanse of brilliant blue sky. I return my attention to the road, convinced the same primal instinct guides us both in search of a time lost forever.
She adjusts the AC vent toward her, and says, “Nobody comes to the San Joaquin Valley in July.”
“Summer was always my favorite time of year growing up.”
“I stand corrected. Nobody in their right mind comes in July,” she said, lowering the visor.
Maybe she’s right, I spent a childhood trying to escape this place. But, four decades after this patchwork of fields formed my universe, Dos Palos is still the only place on the face of the earth I call home.
Beside me, my wife basks in ignorance of the real me. But not from a lack of effort on her part. The signs were in plain sight, but sometimes, plain sight is the best place to hide.
My spirit comes alive as the air conditioner engulfs me in the sweet aroma of freshly mowed alfalfa, sparking images of a simpler life. In an era where parents taught their children right from wrong and good from evil, I learned to tell the good guys from the bad before I learned to ride a bike. Or I thought I could.
But nefariousness became a virtue in the grip of the most murderous century in recorded history, and I knew nothing until awakening to find fame and fortune an empty existence.
Fear transforms from a state of avoidance into an ever-present companion for those who face death daily. A concept unimaginable for my wife when she demanded I reveal my secrets. Strangely void of consternation, I agreed, but even though the threat of jail vanished with the expiration of the statute of limitations, the need to maintain my deeply buried secrets remains.
Desolate expanses of farmland flash past the sunbaked window my wife just touched. She shakes her scorched fingers, asking, “Mind refreshing my memory about the necessity of this three-hour drive?”
I struggle to keep a straight face and say, “You tell me, I can think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing if not for your insistent pestering.”
The lines above the nose bridge precede the snarl as she asks, “Did you just accuse me of nagging?”
My lips display the slightest hint of a smile. “Did demanding I renege on our nondisclosure agreement slip your mind?”
I hit the turn signal and pull into the left lane to pass the tomato truck, coating my windshield with juice, and say, “You heard me.”
She rolls her eyes. “Are you referring to our prenuptial?”
I click off the radio with a nod, and she cups her chin in her hand, facing the window. Then, apologetically, she says, “You agreed we needed to protect our individual holdings.”
I exhaled a whistling breath with a dismissive shake of my head. “Only a fool insists on a shyster’s handiwork when a handshake suffices.”
“Even you don’t understand what you just said,” she says, squinting in my direction.
“And you don’t understand the ramifications of revealing my secrets.”
The old Carlucci place stands on the corner as I pull off the highway onto Palm Avenue and take the back road to my childhood hometown. An endless expanse of open farmland acts as a time machine in my mind, transporting me back to the event that formed a lifelong mindset.
My life changed when I arrived in Mrs. Mouser’s second-grade class tasked with learning to read, only to discover I couldn’t grasp phonics. In 1877, Dr. Adolph Kussmaul described the ailment plaguing me as word blindness. Today, they refer to my condition as dyslexia, and in 1955, they started an obsession by calling me stupid. As for the kids who laughed, recess provided a daily opportunity to exercise my insecurities with my fists.
I give her a wink.
“Well,” she says, strumming her fingers on her arm.
“If you recall, you insisted on keeping our investments separate.”
“And if you remember, you agreed,” she says smugly.
“You miss the point.”
She clicks her tongue. “Enlighten me, Bucko.”
I shoot her a glance. “Unlike you, I don’t need a legal document reminding me to mind my business. So, if I don’t own something, I don’t give a damn about it.”
“And you’re a renegeress.”
Her brow furrowed. “Is that a word?”
“Must be. I said it.”
She faces forward. “Besides, I only asked for the source of financing for the vineyard and winery?”
I contemplate my reply as a pang of nostalgia rips at my heartstrings. The old Davis place is gone. Rows of cotton replaced the old farmhouse, and not even the old eucalyptus grove stands as a reminder of Bill and Diane’s childhood home.
She stares out the window, tapping her fingers impatiently.
“You don’t breach the confidentiality of a man’s business after forcing him to sign a nondisclosure agreement.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You do when your country bumpkin husband comes up with a hundred million dollars overnight.”
“Never ask the chef what’s in the stew after eating it.” The engine whines as I mash the throttle of the 7-Series BMW to the floor.
She catches the breath-mints flying from the dash and glares. “Okay, how much are you hiding from me?”
I exhaled a long breath, and set my jaw, “None of your business. Our nondisclosure agreement prohibits disclosure of confidential information.”
She hides her smile while entering Dos Palos. At first glance, I see the familiar old hometown, yet nothing will ever be the same. Even the horse in this one-horse town died.
I braked for a car backing out of a parking space in front of Leo’s Deli on Center Street. With a glance to my right and in my mind’s eye, I see the store from half a century ago. Motioning to the storefront, I say, “Before they converted this into a deli, this was my grandfather’s grocery store.”
She giggles, motioning to Leo’s doorway. “Remind you of anybody?”
I follow her gaze to the small lad coming out of the deli, waving his red plastic airplane as he flies the toy down the sidewalk. “Four decades ago, that was me.”
Her nose wrinkled. “So, you grew up in Hicksville?”
I face the passenger seat with my best indignant expression and roll my shoulders. “If you want me to go through with this, I suggest not pissing me off.”