Chapter Eight: Will, Man of the Wilds
I would walk out into the orchards when it got cooler in the evenings, after dark. I got to like it. Sometimes I'd take Diga's blanket out with me, and then when I got far enough away from the ranch lights, I'd lay it out on the dirt road, and put myself on it, stretched out, to look at the stars.
One of the first times -- not the first, maybe not the second -- I did that, after staring up at the constellations I knew, and the ones that I made up because I recognized the clusters of lights, I felt like the Universe came down and knelt on my chest. All the breath was pressed out of me, and I knew I could die any second.
"Good. You understand. You have no power over anything I have." The Universe chuckled a little sound. "But I like you enough, the way you like me out here. I'll let you live."
I felt the air rush back into my lungs, like coming up out of deep water in a pool. Cool air, dusty air, enough to raise me up, gulping that sudden air. I'm alive, I thought. Alive.
The voice said to me, "You have no power over me, mijo, but you have all the power over yourself. No one owns you but you. No one. Remember that, and come see me again soon."
Like a lover talking. Maybe not a lover but someone you were intimate with -- not someone you screwed, not a conquest, not even a hot and promising fumble in the back seat of a car -- but one who could be the one if only you could find her again.
I don't have the words to talk to Carmen about it; we're still pretty formal about how we speak to each other because I'm not good with my Spanish yet, and she's not good with English. We can communicate what needs to be done, but the philosophic angle of life is beyond both of us in terms of language.
Maybe Salvi would understand, I don't know. Maybe he just lives with the realization that being alive is so much more than just breathing in and out.
I didn't know. My life was: go online, stay up most of the night chatting with my girlfriend -- god, what a waste of time she turned out to be -- get up late, eat too much of the leftovers in the fridge, and then watch TV or piss around on the web until someone shouted at me to clean my room or take out the trash or empty my car of paper wrappers and plastic McDonald cups. No one told me about how to be alive.
Out here, nothing was between me and being alive. Being alive in a way I never even imagined. Ha, I never imagined that there was a way that I would never imagine. I wasn't a living human being before, I was a ... what? A meat zombie, waddling around from pizza to pizza, instead of looking for brains? Okay, not a meat zombie, a carb zombie.
Again, I just didn't know. Didn't know what it would feel like, to be out in the world, in the dirty, dusty, real world without someone, something to be between me and Life.
That's Life with a capital 'L' which is different from what I thought life was about.
It started with the makeshift job helping with the almond harvest in September, just to get some money to come into the house to keep us from having to move to a homeless shelter. I knew that it would be a filthy job, working the orchards, but even by the end of the first day, when I could hardly breathe, I felt like I'd accomplished something monumental. Fatass Will can take the heat and bring home some non-taxable money to keep food in the bellies of his mother, sister, and brother. God, it felt good to drop that money on the table in front of them. Boy-child makes good.
Except ... Alfredo and Salvi, by the end of the first day, weren't treating me like a boy-child. "You coming back tomorrow?" Salvi had asked. I just nodded, my throat too dry to swallow. He slapped me on the chest, raising a cloud of dust in front of my face. "Mañana, Rojo."
After that first day, I pretty much stopped speaking English except to Mr. Van Duyken and his son, my friend Pete while I was working. It was like an investment for me. Pete and his dad didn't speak Spanish -- maybe a few words -- and relied on Salvi to always translate and be the go-between them and the workers. And the more Spanish I spoke, the less like a boy I was to my team.
By the time I turned 18 in November, I could shift back and forth between Spanish and English, and Salvi was comfortable with me taking his place translating. That meant he could head off for southern California for the citrus harvest and stay with family down there making some extra money, while I watched over his mother and sister on the ranch.
Good timing, because going back to my mother's house every day was like sticking my finger in an electrical socket. The house too hot, the food too rich, the constant scrutiny by Mom and Gloria too oppressing. I liked the quiet of the orchards; the sound of the heavy machinery of harvest was done, the natural sound of the flocks of blackbirds and the swish of the wind through the branches of the trees was loud enough. The first time I heard the coyotes singing I thought something was being killed, but after that, I realized their tenor and soprano vocals were some of the greatest songs I'd ever heard.
Mid-December I stopped lying out on the orchard roads, because the ground was pretty mucky from the fog and rains, but the Universe came to me again in my bed in the makeshift room in the barn. "You're doing okay, mijo, you like this music, too?" The rain hit the roof in little spatters at first, then a downpour that put me instantly to sleep. I couldn't remember any dreams when I woke up, but I felt like the -- well, not the Master of the Universe, considering that I knew the Universe could end my life at any moment, but maybe ... like a favored lover of the Universe. That's a really good feeling.
Universo, they say in Spanish, like it was a guy, but I don't believe that's right. I think the Universe is a she, who invites us to participate in Life. Not a he, who tells you what you have to do. And not a mother, who also tells you what you need to do. The Universe is a siren, who calls and tempts and dances ahead of you, beckoning you on.
I'm not sure what has happened to me. It's only been a few months, but I look back at the Me of August and can't recognize myself at all. Is this how butterflies feel when they emerge from their cocoons and think back on the caterpillars they were when they went into their hibernation? What the hell was I thinking, crawling around and stuffing myself with leaves? Look at how I can fly!
But none of us Meltons are the same. Gloria was the first to turn into something weird -- she went from being Miss Snotty-Too-Good-To-Say-Good-Morning-To-Her-Brothers to Team-Captain-I-Can-Save-Our-Asses overnight. Damn good thing she did, too, or else we'd have ended up in a homeless shelter, crying over how our cell phones didn't work any more. Then me, then Ben with his little business plans that kept the house around us. And then Mom ...
That, I can't understand at all. She and Dad had something close to twenty-five years together, but barely six months after he died, she went off and married some other guy? WTF? Mom and Dad never fought, so it's not like she was unhappy. Dad was tall and handsome and smart -- Ben says Joe Brady is short and dumpy and about ten steps behind Mr. Rogers for conversation -- why did Mom up and decide to marry him? She could have introduced him first, to her kids, to Lolo, who was living with us like family. But she didn't. I don't understand it at all, and I am still angry that she had the idea I'd show up at some church in a suit (never mind that I've never had a suit and would have had to spend some desperate cash to buy one) and waltz her down the aisle like I was thrilled to see some bum take Dad's place at her side.
I know Gloria was upset about it, too, and Ben was seething -- when he called to tell me about it, he was using language I didn't even know that he knew. So Mom had to know that her kids at home didn't approve, and I definitely let her know what I thought of the sudden decision, so why did she just charge on ahead with it? She had a job, Gloria had a job, Lolo was contributing, and I was sending most of my money to the bank account Gloria and I set up, and Ben was quietly making money here and there with his computer business and selling stuff on EBay -- there really wasn't any need to ... move ... or get rid of the house ...
Unless she actually married that doofus for his money. Would she do that? And how could she? Ben told me that this guy Brady had a freakin' mansion in Turlock, with a pool, hot-tub, you-name-it, big enough to ride a bicycle through, and maid service, laundry service, landscape service ... was that the draw? To never have to lift a damn finger for anything ever again?
Listen to me -- I'm a hypocrite, because at the beginning of summer, I'd have thought all those things would be the best life ever. Mom and Dad kind of taught me that, along with all my friends, who, if they were still friends, would think I was out of my mind for turning down Mom's offer for me to move to her new house and quit working and go back to lying around scratching my balls and applying for colleges.
But you know, when I talked to her on the phone, and she more or less ordered me to move back with her, and to do the church thing to make the family look good, I told her she'd made the decision to do this on her own, so she could just stomp down the aisle all on her own, too. When she realized I was serious and had made up my mind, she let me know -- at high volume -- that I was an ungrateful, disobedient, disrespectful, and spoiled son. Kind of just shows that she didn't believe I had become a person on my own, out of her jurisdiction.
It's funny, I guess, that when I used to think about finishing high school and going off to college, it was all about how Mom and Dad would furnish me a little nest apartment somewhere on or near campus -- I was kind of leaning toward Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo -- but now, that turns my stomach. Getting rid of all the extra junk I was hoarding in my room and in the garage was like shedding a hundred pounds of weight, and what I have in my room in the barn is not only all I need but all I want.
And the work ... honest to God, there is nothing in my life I've had more fun doing than backhoe work. This big machine, with its front claw, tearing into the roots of a walnut tree and unearthing a giant black walnut burl that's just about worth gold: marketable English walnuts are grafted onto black walnut stock to give them strength -- the sound and the feeling of ripping them out of the ground is phenomenal. Van Duyken offers our backhoe free, so long as he gets to keep the black walnut to sell for himself. It's crazy profit for him.
Downside: burying dead animals. Farmers are supposed to call the animal disposal company in Turlock to come and haul away the cows that die of heatstroke or milk fever, but a lot of them just want to bury the animals deep. Van Duyken knows a lot of farmers, so we get the business. I can't say I like that part of the job, but I can do it well, and we get paid. Not as much as the disposal company, but enough to make it worthwhile for me and Van Duyken. He and I are in agreement that it does the soil well, too, rather than benefit cheap local dog food companies or go to landfills.
When it rains, I go up to Van Duyken's house and tap into his wireless connection. I take accounting classes, (Gloria's idea, I stole it from her) and sop up anything to do with almond propagation. Bees are the next mystery to solve, and I'm glad it's time for Salvi to come back and coach me on how to deal with bee-boxes. They haven't arrived yet, but Van Duyken says the bee-trucks will be arriving in about two weeks. I've seen them from a distance, but never close up. I hope I'm not allergic to bees.
There was a knock on Will's door. He poked his head out to find Carmen, with a shawl wrapped around her. "Teléfono. Su hermano."
Uh oh. Another crisis for Ben?
He hurried out the door of the barn, wading past Diga as she jumped and barked at him from her chain.