The night that I saw the future was on the day that my best friend Pedro told me he was going off to war.
And it started innocently enough. That morning, the first day of summer before my senior year, I couldn't sleep in, what with Mason and Anna Marie already making play noises out in the yard and Josefina banging around making breakfast. So, I was up and dressed by seven and made my way to the kitchen. Mama and Pa weren't up yet, a late bridge party the night before, and I sat alone at the table and Josefina brought me a big plate of huevos rancheros and some refried beans and corn tortillas. She was in her early forties then, with long black hair that she wore in one braid that reached to her waist. She was dark-skinned, mostly Aztec blood I guess, slender of build and much shorter than me, though she'd always stood so erectly and proudly that she seemed tall in my mind.
She wore her usual long, cotton work dress and sturdy shoes and an apron that was already dusted with masa harina from the tortillas she had made and pressed and cooked that morning. Josefina always smelled the same, with a hint of some perfume her husband gave her every Christmas, overlaid by the smells of Mexican cooking. Corn flour, cilantro, and chilis warred with the always freshly washed, sun-dried aroma of her apron and the pleasing smell of her skin. She didn't smell like any Anglo lady.
When I was little and had some minor hurt to cry about, a hug from Josefina, with my face buried in her apron, always made me feel better. I would inhale those smells and all the hurt and tears would pass away. Those smells have always made me think “home” ever since. Somewhere along the way, she knew just when I was too old to be getting hugs from a still young woman, but I always knew that if the need was great enough, her apron and her arms would be there for me.
She wore a pair of dangly silver and turquoise earrings, which swung a bit as she leaned over to set a cup of coffee on the table in front of me. “You work muy tarde anoche, Panchito. I hear mi hijo come in maybe a la una.”
“Yes, ma'am. Pedro and I were watering that cotton field down by the river.”
Rancho Loro had been owned by Josefina's husband and his family for generations, but the hundred thousand acres had dwindled to two thousand by the time Pedro's father lost it all in 1915. Nowadays, Pedro and his father hoed cotton on what was now my Pa's land. You could fill one of those thick textbooks by some professor at a Texas university with theories about why there was such a huge transfer of land from Hispanic Tejanos to Anglos, and some folks had plenty to be bitter about. But Pedro's father always said that the Tejanos had not understood the game, which he likened to the old vaquero game of Coyote. “Me encerro las chivas,” he'd say. “I was outfoxed.”
“And do you work with Pedro again today?” Josefina asked. “He say you will water again tonight.”
“Yes, this morning I need to go work on the Kayamas' melon field, but then this afternoon Pedro and I will go to the tractor store to get some parts.”
“Habla con él, Panchito. Talk to him. Something bothers him, and he no want to talk about it.”
“Yes ma'am. I'll try.”
“Pues, ten cuidado. Be careful.”
“Como siempre, Tia.”
I knew she was thinking of last summer, when I was barreling along in the tractor and a pothole bounced me practically into the deep irrigation ditch alongside the road. I teetered there, one wheel in the air, and a ten-foot drop beneath me, debating whether to try to jump off before the tractor took me down. Instead I leaned my weight to the uphill side and managed to creep the tractor back onto the road. When I was safely on solid ground, I turned off the tractor and just sat there, getting my heartbeat and breathing back under control. The only sounds were the ticking of the cooling engine, the croaking of frogs down in the ditch, and the calls of mourning doves and white wings resting in the trees. I really needed a hug from Josefina that day, since I didn't dare tell my mama about it.
Josefina patted me on the shoulder and took my now empty plate. I went to the room I shared with my little brother Mason and my half-brother Eldon. Eldon was five years older than me, but by the time I was five or so, I began to understand that Eldon just stopped getting any older. He was stuck at six years of age in his mind and God just wasn't going to let him grow any more. Eldon tailed along when Pedro led us in play, but it came to seem that he didn't really understand what we were doing and why. He was older, and bigger and stronger than the rest of us, and he was indispensable when we needed a boost into a tree or onto the roof of the barn. But as the years went on and we grew our own selves, it was just Pedro and me, and Jimmy Kayama from down the road a piece, most of the time, except when we'd play Rangers and Comanches or Rangers and Mexicans.
See, Eldon didn't mind being the Comanche and getting killed, because he liked the whole dramatic dying scene. He liked falling and flopping and gasping like a fish out of water and then kicking spasmodically before expiring of his wounds. Eldon was a born actor, and he liked wearing the feathers and war whooping and running 'round us in a circle, pretending that he was attacking the fort or something. And there was no way Pedro was going to play the Mexican, even though he was one, because his uncle had been killed, some say murdered, by the Rangers back during the border troubles of the teen years.
So, when we'd play Rangers and Mexicans it was Eldon that crept through the corn field, pretending the stalks were reeds on the banks of the Rio Grande, and it was Pedro and I and sometimes Jimmy Kayama who rode up on our pretend horses and dealt with the invasion with our mesquite branch six-shooters. When I was older, I wondered why Pedro would even play this game. Maybe he didn't realize the significance of it himself, being so young. We never pretended to string Eldon up, though, like the real Rangers might have done. Pedro had heard his mama and papa talking about some kids who had done that in a town farther upriver and the victim had died for real, strangling on the rope that was tied to an ebony tree branch. And the reason they were talking about it was that Pedro's uncle had been lynched by the Rangers back in 1916. From a tree on the Rancho Loro. And then what was left of the family fled to Mexico.
That's why what happened that afternoon at the Barber Tractor Supply tipped Pedro over the edge.
“Go back to Mexico, you damn wetback!”
“Slacker! Draft dodger! Swim back to Mexico, greaser!”
I ran to the front of the store, where I'd told Pedro to meet me. I'd gone in back to arrange for a seed delivery and he'd gone to find the right size of drawbar to replace one that had gotten bent the day before, when the plow had jumped and landed wrong. Now he was up by the cash register at the front of the store, surrounded by three men whose faces were cruel and angry and red from shouting and from drink. And Pedro stood there, all five-and-a-half feet of him, with the other three looming over and him clutching the metal drawbar in a white-knuckled grip. And he wasn't the one I was worried about.
The men continued their shouting and began to dart in and shove Pedro from behind as he turned 'round and 'round, threatening them with his bar of steel. The store owner joined in the shouting, telling them to stop and leave his store, but they ignored him, carried away by the liquor and an irrational hatred burning through their thin layers of civility.
I ran up to them, shouting “Stop! Stop!” and put a body block on one of the men, who was trying to hold Pedro by the arms. He spilled onto his back against the front counter and the other two went silent. I took the bar out of Pedro's hands and pointed it at the two men's faces.
“What's the matter with you? He has a deferment, an agricultural worker deferment. And he's not even a citizen, so leave him alone!”
“Don't matter if he ain't a citizen, boy,” the smaller and meaner-looking of the two men said. “He still is liable for the draft if he lives here.”
“He has a deferment!”
“Did I have a deferment in '18? Did these two here?” He pointed at the man still sprawled on the floor and his friend, who was trying to help him to stand. “Did my son, who's lying dead in a cemetery in North Africa, of all the damn places in the world?”
“I don't know about that, sir. But Pedro here does have a deferment. Are you going to do his work for him if he goes?” I pointed the bar at him, and said, “You should know that my father doesn't allow people to get drunk on the job. Or are you on the dole? And that's why you're drunk on a Saturday afternoon?”
“Frank. Panchito,” Pedro said, tugging my arm, “Vámonos. Let's go. We can tell Deputy Webb about this later. Let him deal with these men. Not you.” At the mention of Deputy Webb, the smaller man took a step back and shut up.
I looked at Mister Barber and said, “We're taking this drawbar, sir. And my Pa wanted a dozen fifty-pound bags of honeydew melon seeds, if you'll have those delivered to the Forbes packing shed in Donna and put it all on my Pa's bill?” I pointed the drawbar once more at the three men's faces, grabbed Pedro by the arm, and propelled him out the door.
Pedro was silent, trembling it seemed to me, either in anger or the comedown from an adrenalin rush, and he refused to say anything when I asked him if he was all right. I fired up the pickup and headed back to the farm, my own hands shaking just a bit, and Pedro had still not said a word when we pulled into the farm yard.
“I'll install the drawbar,” I said. “Why don't you go visit with your wife for a while, and I'll see you after supper to head out to the field.”
He nodded and seemed about to say something but turned to go to his little house. And I did the rest of our work alone, thinking the whole time, why couldn't Josefina and your papa have made it back to Texas in time for you to be born here?
That night the cotton stalks were waving in the wind that never seemed to stop blowing in the Rio Grande Valley, with nothing to slow it down but miles and miles of Texas. It was still warm from the ninety degrees we'd hit earlier in the day and the water flowing down the rows had that fresh smell you get when you run through a sprinkler. Just seeing the stars reflected in the water was cooling me off and I started just talking and talking to fill the silence. Until I ran out of words.
Finally, “I think I not work in the fields much longer,” Pedro said. “I go to enlist tomorrow.”
“But you're not even a citizen and you have a deferment from the draft,” I said, alarmed. “You don't have to. What about your wife and the baby that's on the way?”
“Cecilia, she is a citizen. My baby will be a citizen también. I want to be a citizen and they say that to serve in the Army is a…sendero?”
“Sí, a path. In the Army, I can be a citizen. Algún día. Es una cosa de mi corazón.”
I couldn't think of anything to say just then, and I was saved from trying to think of something by having to start closing the channels we'd opened. We slogged along in our rubber boots, shoveling the ditch's bank back together. Then we opened the next section of rows and walked down the dry rows again to keep an eye on things. I started thinking again about the war and Pedro going off to serve. Plenty of guys had gone off to war already. A couple of graduates from my small school had already come back, covered in a flag. Danny Brown had been in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, and Randy Arness had served in the merchant marine, and I couldn't shake the picture in my head of Pedro coming home the same way.
“What about killing? Could you kill someone?” I asked.
“If he try to kill me, then yes, I kill him.”
“I don't know if I could. I don't even know if I could kill an animal anymore. You remember when I was maybe eleven and I shot that stray dog that looked like it might have rabies? And you helped me haul the carcass off and bury it? I thought about that a lot right after, and I even had nightmares about it. I still think about it to this day, from time to time. There's nothing I can think of that I'm more ashamed of. Maybe that dog was just tired, thirsty, hungry, and that's why he was sitting in our yard and hanging around all those days making a nuisance of himself and looking sick.” I closed my eyes, remembering.
“But I thought he was rabies sick, so I got the thirty-thirty saddle gun and killed him. I remember deciding to do it, and walking up to where he was lying, and his tail starts to wag, and I shot him, but my hands were shaking, and he didn't die right off. And then you could see he was thinking, 'Why'd you do that?' and he snarls and starts to come after me and I shoot him again and he's dead.”
“You were only a niño then, Panchito.”
“Yeah, but it was still wrong, or at least I feel now that it was. And last fall, when Pa took me deer hunting upriver, I was so glad we sat in that hide all day and didn't see a single deer. I couldn't bear to see their eyes if I killed them, saying to me like the dog did, 'Why'd you do that?' And it's funny, but I can shoot white wings all day long. They're birds, and it's not like they've got a soul, like a dog, or a deer, or a man.”
“Maybe the war finishes before you must go,” Pedro said. “You only have sixteen years, and you must have eighteen before they can take you.”
“I don't mind them taking me. In fact, I want to go. I just don't know if I can kill a man.”
“Then I will kill them for you, 'mano. If they try to kill me.”
We worked on that field until about midnight, and by that time the moon was up and so bright the full irrigation ditch looked like a shiny ribbon of molten silver running away from us back to the standpipe. We closed the valve and the ditch emptied into the last of the rows. For once, we gauged it perfectly, not wasting a drop. I say “we”, but it was Pedro whose nearly ten years of experience at doing this overruled my too early caution. “No, Panchito,” he said. “Cinco minutos más.” And he was right, the last rows filling all the way to their ends, just when the silver ribbon turned into a long stretch of dark, shiny brown mud, like a snake crawling out of its skin.
We walked back to the pickup truck parked near the standpipe and stripped off our rubber boots, put on dry socks and then our cowboy boots. The shovels went into the bed and we each grabbed a Coke from the metal ice chest and sat on the open tailgate for a while, enjoying the breeze that quickly cooled the sweat on our faces. “This field look very good,” Pedro said. “Mucho algodón. Maybe one bale each two acre if the weather stay good.”
“When does the weather ever stay good, 'mano? We might get the first bale out of this field, though. Seems like it's a week ahead of most fields I've seen.”
“How much the prize this year?”
“A hundred dollars, I think, and if prices stay like last year, that bale will be worth a hundred dollars by weight at twenty cents a pound. That price should hold with the war still on.”
“This field is sixty acres, no? So, that will be three thousand dollars if your papa get one bale each two acre.” Pedro might have never gone to school and couldn't read or write much beyond the grade school stuff our family had taught him, but he was hell on wheels when it came to figuring numbers in his head. “Maybe when I come back from the Army, I buy some land and grow cotton, también.” He shook his head in wonder.
“Don't go thinking it's like having an oil well, Pedro. There's always a risk of drought, bad weather, boll weevils, you name it. That's why Pa doesn't just grow cotton. He's got the winter vegetables and the citrus groves and the melons. That's what keeps you and the other guys working all year 'round. Which reminds me. He wants me to work at the packing shed tomorrow. We're doing a run of sweet red peppers, so we'd best be heading home.”
What I didn't say, but was thinking, was that Pedro would have a tough time finding an Anglo farmer willing to sell him any good land, at least any with access to that magic water. I wasn't even sure of Pa. One day he'd shown me some of the promotional brochures he'd picked up in the teen years back in Missouri, brochures that painted a picture of a paradise of cheap land and cheap labor that knew to stay on its own side of the tracks. Brochures like that drew men like Pa, looking for an opportunity to start fresh. It also drew men steeped in the traditions of the segregated South, as well as men from the Midwest who didn't disagree with them. Pa did disagree. He said that day, “It's men that like this picture, that expect this picture to last forever, that I have to do business with. And it's most of them, too. Without them, our packing shed would be empty.” But Pa fought battles like that quietly, and in private.
We finished off our Cokes and stuck the empty glass bottles in the wooden case in the back of the truck. I drove, because Pedro didn't like driving at night. He always said he felt like he couldn't see well enough in the dark, though it seemed he could see just fine when we were working in a dark field. We didn't have far to go, just south a couple of miles on a gravel and caliche farm-to-market road lined with a deep irrigation feeder ditch, up over the hump of the levee, and then half a mile to our farm house near the river.
It was just shy of one when I parked our '39 pickup truck in the equipment yard behind the house. That's where we kept our two tractors and all the attachments, the plows and tillers and such. There was a maintenance shed and a big standing tank for diesel fuel for the tractors and a gasoline pump for the trucks. With a wave, Pedro headed off to his family's little house next to the barn, where he and his wife lived with his parents.
I sat down and took off my boots at the first step of the porch stairs and tiptoed in my socks into the house and down the hall to the boys' room. Mine was the bottom bunk and Mason had the upper. Eldon was quietly snoring in his own single over by the window, still wearing the Liberty Corps cap that he was never without those days. I set my boots under the bed and took off my overalls and laid down on top of the covers. I counted sheep, but they became flag-draped coffins returning from Europe and the Pacific and that kept me awake for quite a while, before my fatigue took over and I drifted into sleep. I dreamed.
Pedro was there, running. It was night. But then I was Pedro and it was me running, running through snow and tall, tall trees almost black in the darkness and me carrying a steel drawbar. But then it became a bazooka. Why was I alone? Why couldn't I see? My heart was pounding, the blood rushing in my ears, and my head felt heavy and I realized I wore a heavy steel helmet with evergreen boughs stuck in its webbing and I could see the flashes of explosions and ahead of me the bright lightshow of tracer rounds reflected in the snow. But it was all silence. A silent movie. I was terrified. I wanted to dig a hole in the snow. But I ran on. Somehow, I knew that my comrades needed me to do this. And I needed to do this, to prove something. I fired my bazooka at a German pillbox and the flames poured out of the tiny slit. I ran and ran, more pillboxes. I threw grenades. I fired the bazooka, again and again. My body slammed to a stop. And then, nothing. Silence. Darkness. Then a bright light.
I woke. I stared at the underside of Mason's mattress, replaying the last reel of the film. And I cried, understanding.