For a time, my father carried around a little palm notebook, spiral bound at the top. I can’t remember how old I was because memory is like a terrorist, extremely uncooperative with divulging exact details and facts. If only we could waterboard our memories – to get them to talk, to clear up what we have wrong.
They were inseparable. Him and the notebook and the notebook and him. He studied from it all the time. I mostly remember him holding it open in one hand as he ate dinner while the other, pinched a tortilla to scoop up some beans. What he studied I wasn’t exactly sure but I sensed, as much as a child can, that it was important. It had something to do with the end of handling guts and innards from disemboweled chickens at the Foster Farms chicken processing plant in Livingston. He studied to do something else at the plant; something more that would give his wife and three children more.
Before and as he studied for this possible new position, my father didn’t have a proper uniform. He wore whatever he had and, I’m assuming, something he did not mind getting dirty: jeans, old pants, a shirt; anything conducive to helping machines rip chickens apart. There was a white hard hat, yellow ear plugs to drown out the machines inside the plant and knee high, black, rubber boots. One day, all of that went away along with the spiral, palm notebook. He now had a proper uniform: dark blue pants and a light blue shirt with a name patched and stitched on the left breast. It read Harvey.
Everyone wanted a scooter during that time. This was years ago. None of this razor scooter stuff. These were real scooters: big wheels and handlebars and a footboard strong enough to support a husky boy like me. How he knew I wanted a scooter I couldn’t say. However, I’m positive I employed subtle or not so subtle manipulating strategies used by children for millennia, hints dropped hoping he’d pick up:
Daddy, did you see so and so’s doll? It’s nice isn’t it?
Daddy, I’m getting too big for this baseball bat. And, these gloves are tight. My hands can’t breathe!
Oh Daddy! I’m having so much fun riding cousin’s scooter!
We drove across town in his 1985 red Ford Ranger to Kmart. It was the Christmas season and I didn’t know why were going there at first. Now, looking back, I have no idea why he would’ve asked me to go with him but he did. Was he crazy? I knew Kmart sold scooters because one day I showed him a green one I liked. I also knew that my father was in the habit of putting things on layaway; a helpful alternative, alleviating any sense of being below the poverty line.
“We couldn’t be going there to get my scooter, could we?” I remember telling myself as we drove into the parking lot. He circled round and found a spot quite a distance from the store’s entrance.
“Quedate aqui,” my father said. “Ahorita vengo.”
I waited in the Ranger with my thoughts.
“This is the worse possible way to surprise somebody with a gift,” I thought. “Why would he bring me with him to pick up my Christmas gift before Christmas? Wasn’t he afraid I’d see it or suspect what he was up to? And how was he going to unload it without me seeing? What? Was he going to put it in a garbage bag?”
Moments later, I felt something heavy fall into the truck’s bed. It was a large brown box. The empty back of it faced up. Dad got in the Ranger.
“Vámonos,” he said. We crossed Merced again, heading home. Two blocks away from the house he says to me, “When you get inside, bring me out a garbage bag.”
I was supposed to be home at 10:00 p.m. but didn’t leave the house until midnight. I was at Lisa’s house on M Street between Buena Vista and Yosemite Avenue, kicking back with other kids. I was a 7th grader with no business being out that late. Why he let me go I’ll never know. Perhaps he trusted me when he shouldn’t have. Perhaps he thought I would be responsible and disciplined enough to obey his command to be home by ten rather than do what I wanted to do. Kids. I left the party and walked through a residential area at night, headed toward a path leading into one of the fields of Rivera Jr. High. Walking through this darkened field gave me cover and from it, I could see Buena Vista Drive, heavily lit and brightened by the high street lights. Suddenly, the red Ford Ranger drove down the street, slowly. My body dropped without knowing. I watched, my face in the wet grass, as he prowled the streets like a lion. I imagined him inside, cursing me in Spanish, frustrated with where I might be, worried even for my safety. I knew what the morning would bring and I deserved it. He drove toward M Street and disappeared behind the homes while I walked the other way, headed for home and fully aware that I was in trouble. I ran through the school, reached R Street and ran into the black of Fahren’s Park, again, headed for the darkened Black Rascal path to keep me sheltered and invisible. I ran the path, all the way until I reached Biscmark. And then I walked, worked at catching my breath, and began testing out lies in my head. I crossed Sacramento and prayed he wouldn’t be home. I passed the corner house and eyed my house. The Ranger wasn’t there. I ran to my bedroom window and slid it open like my plan had always been. I climbed inside, changed my clothes and pretended sleep. The Ranger’s lights shot across my room like searchlights. The engine died, a door opened and closed, keys rattled, the house door opened then closed. Down the hall he came. My door opened and then the lights in my room came on.
“Me la vas a pagar en la mañana,” he said to me.
Boy did I.
If it was Saturday morning, sometimes I would wake up and my dad wouldn’t be there. Coffee would be made but he’d be nowhere to be found. Because we’d seen this before, we weren’t worried at all. He would eventually return with one or two white bags full of Mexican bread from La Michoacana or somewhere else I can’t remember. Or sometimes, he’d already be back, stirring his coffee, spoon clanking his mug, enjoying his “café con pan dulce” while reading the Sun-Star at the kitchen table. I drank coffee young. I never got any of it’ll stunt your growth stuff from him as I pulled up a chair, looking for a pumpkin empanada inside the bag.
I missed something like forty days of school in sixth grade. A truant officer came to the house once during the I Love Lucy hour on TBS when I should’ve been at school, feeling way behind and out of place in a sixth grade GATE class. I watched the truant officer from the peep hole. Closer than that she never came. He found out about my truancies and made it a point to come to school unannounced whenever he felt like it just to keep me on my toes. I passed sixth grade. And seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.
Where M Street and Child’s kiss there are four apartments, two stacked on top of each other on the left and right. The bottom one on the right. That one. I lived there. One. In front of the airport, V Street crossing Child’s, until it runs into dirt. A house over there. Two. Castle Apartments in Atwater. Three. Sequoia Gardens near Pine Cone. Four. Seville Drive off Child’s when Alicia Reyes was just a field. Five. The country house off of Stretch. Six. An apartment off Canal Street, 18th or 19th Street, not sure, there was a church or something across the street. Seven. Juneau Court, eight. We zig-zagged Merced trying on shelter the way a person tries on clothes, looking for the perfect fit, migrating and moving at every prospect of something better, something cheaper with more. Never homeless, never unprotected from the elements, always a bed somewhere even if we shared it.
Once he thrashed a man for insulting my mother. What are you gonna do?
A little goes a long way. No motorcycles, no boats, no ATVs, no toys for him. But if he could and when he could, he removed us from inside our walls and took us beyond any park entrance fee. At Lake Yosemite, at about three or four in the afternoon when it’s windy and the water is high and choppy, that was the best time to jump off the pier or off the bridge into the dark, bluish water. For a second, the water felt better than what Merced deserved. He took me there. Swimming across Barrett’s Cove gave me confidence as a swimmer. He took me there too. McConnell was fine, a wide river with a steep ravine, from there I jumped all day. He took me there. I couldn’t swim at Henderson Park, never tried, it was prohibited. He took me there too and all the while, like everywhere, he stood near a barbecue like a sentry, guarding carne asada, chicken and hot dogs with a beer in his hand, checking and double checking everything was in order for us to eat whenever we took breaks from being kids.
“How far did you walk?” I might have asked him.
“Oooohh,” he would begin, as if you’d never believe what he was about to tell you and with that face only a Nicaraguan would know, “Hasta McKee!” he’d say, which was a long way by foot from Juneau near Loughborough Drive.
“Y de allí, I walked to Bear Creek y me vine por el Applegate y después, el path detrás Wal-Mart, cruce Olive y me regrese por el Black Rascal.” I call it the Harvey Soza loop and he did this all the time after coming home from work. He’d wear shorts probably shorter than I’d be comfortable wearing (he does have buff legs), black sneakers, white tube socks pulled all the way up and on top of his black curly hair, some random hat to keep the sun away. He’d come back drenched with sweat and would guzzle down water like a wanderer finding a refreshing pool. He returned tired but refreshed and energized by endorphins and numb to the pain in his knees or stiffness from his notorious back.
At the time, I might have thought, “What’s so neat about walking? Why does my dad enjoy it so much?” When I run, I get my answers. I run with my father’s endurance for walking. You don’t just run. You think and run. You figure things out and run. You think about your family, your past, your future and you run. It can’t be helped, it’s self-therapy. And so, somehow I believe this is what my father experienced, therapeutic reflection and practicing endurance.
A visiting professor asked us one day:
Where do you come from?
While others stared into space, I was three or four lines in talking about a man. Not place or city or country. But my father. And then I thought about his machete, how I imagined him using it in Nicaragua, how he became one for his family, how he kept it under his bed as protection for his family and how it now lays underneath my bed.
Who would like to share?
So I went, but not far before what I admired about my father choked my voice and turned everyone’s head towards me. I paused, composed myself and finished the little bit I had written. I learned nothing is real until you say it, until you’ve infused it with life from your lips and others hear.
Months later, I waited for him in the parking lot of Geno’s Pizza in Livingston one afternoon. He was about to start his shift. I waited for him with a small stack of Sacramento Bee’s from October 2008. I’d taken what I wrote that day in that college class and stayed with it. I sent it to the Bee for publication as an article. For one day, in the State newspaper, anyone could read about what I already knew about my father – that he was a good father, hard-working, sacrificing, heroic for making lemonade out of lemons. Bright sunny day. He reached the parking lot. We talked a bit before I gave him the newspapers. He took them and drove less than a block away to the plant. I imagined him showing the article to his co-workers, telling everyone his son wrote with the same zeal Rudy Ruettiger’s father had when he proudly tells everyone at the steel plant over an intercom, “Hey guys, my son is going to Notre Dame!”
I wonder where those newspapers are now. Probably under his bed where his machete used to lay. Maybe he goes to them for assurance, for validation and proof of a beloved fatherhood. A proof his children never doubt.