[Chris Honore’ was born in occupied Denmark, during WWII. After the war, he immigrated to America. He went to public schools and then attended San Jose State University and the University of California, at Berkeley, where he earned a teaching credential, an M.A. and a Ph.D. After teaching high school English for two years, he joined the Peace Corps. He’s a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon. His wife owns a bookstore on Main Street. His son is a cinematographer, living in Southern California.]
I was thirteen years old when I went to stay with my grandmother. She lived alone in a rambling, two-story farmhouse with a wide wrap-around porch that offered soft views of the road and woods and a sheltered bay just beyond. Not far inland, due east, was the town of Watson. Everything west was ocean, the Pacific, deeply blue and endless.
My mother called me Samantha; everyone else called me Sam. And there was no doubt that Sam was a better fit, like khaki shorts and sandals were a better fit than a cotton dress and tightly laced shoes.
During those first days after my arrival – it was early June – I wandered the woods and fields around the farmhouse, inevitably making my way down to a sheltered bay, a crescent moon of sand and rocks, where I looked for shells and driftwood, taken by the small birds running on fragile pink legs through the sudsy water, their thin beaks poking the sand for tiny, diaphanous crabs.
I often sat for hours on a smooth, bleached log watching the waves swell and fall toward shore, the brown pelicans flying just above the blue-green water in ragged lines. Occasionally, a sleek seal would emerge, just nose and eyes, looking at me, finally slipping away beneath the surface.
Behind the house stood a great hulking barn, the pitched roof angling down in a disjointed fashion like the broken wings of some prehistoric bird. Once white, its weathered sides now a dull, splintered gray. Inside were empty stalls still pungent with the smell of dried hay and manure, and in dark corners I discovered discarded tools and stiff leather harnesses. Deep in one corner, below a dusty tarp, were stacks of newspaper, the color of dried tobacco leaves, tied with twine, and locked trunks and brittle furniture covered with a patina of dust. An armoire stood against a wall and two bicycles, their leather seats cracked, tires flat and spokes and rims pitted with rust were leaning against the armoire’s doors.
When I entered the barn for the first time, through a creaky side door, and saw all that it contained, I held my breath the way one might after digging for days in the sand on a deserted beach, suddenly hearing the shovel hit metal and seeing revealed an ancient and promising chest.
I have always loved old things: old tools, their wooden handles scarred and worn from use; abandoned houses redolent of musty decay; somber museums with wax figures of prehistoric people dressed in animal skins, kneeling around an ersatz fire, their faces wide and flat. From the first moment I stepped into the barn’s dim interior, I was captivated.
There was just the two of us, my grandmother and me. My father lived in a town up north, Ft. Bragg, where he worked on a fishing boat. He had declared, to one and all, that unless the deck he was standing on rolled and pitched, he was not a happy man. My mother was down south, chasing her own dream. For years she had been told she looked like a movie star and had the voice of an angel. True, she was then, and is now, stunningly beautiful, with thick blonde hair, creamy skin, eyes the color of a cloudless morning sky, and she had a way of walking that announced itself. So, convinced that her dream was within her grasp, she went off to Hollywood to be discovered.
She sent my grandmother and me occasional post cards, pictures of palm trees and sunsets and beaches and, of course, the Hollywood hills with the big white sign that says so. And sometimes she telephoned to say that it wouldn’t be much longer and she’d be famous and then send for me. We’d live in a white Spanish villa and have scads of servants and a big black Packard with a driver who wore a cap and, of course, there would be a kidney shaped pool somewhere on the grounds. We would have our pictures in the papers looking deliciously happy and reporters would follow us when we went to lunch, snapping our picture, flash bulbs popping as we entered well-known restaurants, and her name would be up in lights.
My grandmother would take the phone and say something like, “Oh for land’s sake, Becca, stop all this movie star nonsense and come home. Nobody here is getting any younger and neither are you.”
My grandmother had never been a big woman, and in old age she seemed somehow diminished, almost frail, hair the color of ash, her arms and legs like broom handles, her face sharp, etched with wrinkles and deeply brown from hours in the garden. When she and I first met, we stood shoulder to shoulder and before long, she said, laughing, either I was growing like a weed or she was in the process of becoming decidedly shorter. Maybe both. But I soon discovered that she wasn’t frail, not by any stretch; rather, I found her to be strong and mightily determined and always willing to laugh, even if she had to search long and hard for a reason.
She was also warm and honest and always fair and made sure, from that first moment my mother set my two worn suitcases and me on her front porch, that I felt welcomed. She told me in a hundred different ways that I was an important part of her life, explaining how I filled the old house with comforting noise.
“Not to forget, Sam,” she said, “living alone can be a blessing with a dark side. I’ve tried it for years, and truth be told, I find hearing your footsteps running down the stairs to be eminently more preferable than the silence I’ve been listening to since your grandfather passed.”
I hadn’t really known my grandmother or grandfather before my mother brought me to her front porch. We didn’t visit much and for a number of years my mother fought with her on the phone, saying how she wanted her to sell the old place, before it fell down, and move into town, live in a home for old folks – wasn’t there a nice little place in Watson, or maybe in San Luis Obispo? – where she’d have company and assistance if needed.
But sitting in our kitchen, listening to this familiar conversation, at least half of it, watching my mother pace back and forth, tugging the phone cord from one side to the other, I could tell from the expression on her face that the answer she got to this repeated suggestion was not the one she wanted. And when she hung up the phone, she’d say something to the effect that that stubborn old woman wouldn’t listen to her own minister.
So standing on the front porch that one Sunday morning, my grandmother at my side, I watched my mother drive away down the long gravel driveway into the late morning sun, waving out of the car window. At that moment, seeing the car grow smaller as it sped away in a swirl of dust, I realized I didn’t believe my mother would leave. Not really. For a time, I begged to go along. Hollywood could find room for one small girl. I wouldn’t be a bother. She wouldn’t even know I was there. When I saw I was making little headway, I argued that the two of us could live with grandma in the farmhouse, like a family, and we’d be fine.
But my mother had been told too often that she was as gorgeous as gorgeous gets and had long ago started to wonder out loud, “If them, why not me? Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe. I mean, where’s the difference?”
I would pick up one of my mother’s Motion Picture magazines and study these women, staring into the camera, the barest hint of a smile parting their glistening lips. They glittered and sparkled, their hair perfect and glossy, their skin flawless. Everything about their expressions beckoned.
But even I had figured out that there was gorgeous and there was acting: convincing an audience seated in a dark theater that you truly and deeply cared whether Jimmy Stewart or William Holden got a promotion and finally had found a reason to go on living, that took more than luscious lips, a perfect nose and lots of wavy hair. I could’ve told my mother that and more; but she never asked.
My grandmother, without being asked, had certainly tried, telling my mother to get her perfect nose out of those trashy Hollywood magazines, every one of them about this and that confidential confession, all full of lies and fantasy. She pointed out to Becca that it was time to realize that beauty in most places was average in Hollywood and stunning good looks would maybe get you a job as a waitress. She’d be better off going straight to Las Vegas if she really wanted to gamble.
Whenever I think of my mother, I see her sitting in our small flat in San Francisco, pushed up to her vanity, leaning forward, her brow furrowed, studying herself intently in a large oval mirror, her jars of creams and nail polish and bottles of perfume arranged carefully in front of her. She would slowly pass the tips of her fingers over her cheeks and chin and lips, her silk robe cinched tightly around her small waist. Where I felt out of alignment, my eyebrows too thick, my nose too short, my wheat colored hair wild and erratic, she was all symmetry and balance and perfection.
But in some strange way her beauty kept her from seeing or understanding other people. And I think it was her beauty that made it impossible for her to understand that leaving me with grandmother would be scary and hard. And even when I decided I didn’t want to be anywhere else and felt completely at home, I carried a nugget of hurt and sadness that wouldn’t go away.
When I think of my father, I think of a presence, not a person. What I mean is, he was there, a part of my life, but only as someone who came home each evening and filled one corner of the small living room, reading a newspaper or talking at the dinner table in short quick sentences, always seeming preoccupied. Where my mother and I were fair and gently freckled, my father was dark, his beard heavy, even in the morning, just after a shave, his jaw line permanently shadowed.
I can’t remember ever having a conversation with him. He would say, “Sam, get me a beer from the frig.” Or, “Sam, turn that radio down.” And I would do as he asked and he would return to his thoughts, his distracted silence screened behind his newspaper, the distance fixed, the azimuth of our relationship never changing.
So my father went north to fish and my mother went south to be discovered. I was to stay with my grandmother, at first a stranger, but never, in all the time I knew her, just a presence. She talked to me with an unexpected equality: she wanted to hear my opinions; she assumed I had thought about things; and what I had to say was of interest. She listened.
Most evenings we would sit on the front porch and watch the light of day fade into shadows, the last sunlight glimmering off the bay, the sound of the cicadas building in the laurel and oak trees, and feeling comfortable and never careful, we would talk. Our conversations stopped and started, touching on the day. For me, it was a revelation.
In the distance, across a wide, stretching field was another farmhouse. From the kitchen I could see the roofline and a small attic window. When I first came to live with my grandmother – she was standing by the sink in the kitchen early one morning – she pointed in the direction of the other farm house, her face puzzled, her voice thoughtful, saying, “Samantha, you’ve seen that house beyond the field. Well, a family lives there, now. Just moved in. I’ve yet to meet them and my sense is you’d do best to stay on our property and not bother them. Haven’t a notion who they are. But I did see a girl, not long ago. Strangest thing. I was out at the clothesline and she was walking through the trees, just to the left of the field, walking like she wasn’t going anywhere in particular. I watched her until she looked in my direction and when she did, I waved. And then she did the most unexpected thing: the child stopped like a surprised deer, cautious, and she looked at me for the longest time then disappeared into the trees. Never waved, never looked back.
“Place use to be the Robinson’s, old time farm people, pleasant enough, raised some chickens and vegetables and avocados. But not the friendliest folks you ever could think to meet, the old man a bit cranky and standoffish, as neighbors go. But that was some time ago. Since then, it’s stood vacant, been years I’d say. I’d no idea anyone had moved in. Not ’til I saw that girl. Saw a truck come and go. I don’t get the feeling that they’re too anxious for company, so you’d better not go over there unless an invitation is offered. Which I don’t believe will be forthcoming.”
I stood next to my grandmother at the sink and stared out the window across the field at the smudge of white, the house barely visible, screened by brush and a stand of oaks.
What my grandmother didn’t understand was that I possessed a sense of curiosity that burned inside me like an ember of coal. And it didn’t take much to fan it into a flame. So I wondered about the girl walking among the trees and about the others who lived in that distant farmhouse.
The days passed easily and an unexpected contentment settled over me. I wandered through the woods and often made my way down to the bay. I collected small, smooth shells and dug in the sand with a stick, and often I would stretch out prone, my arms spread wide, feeling the warm sand on my skin, watching clouds move slowly across the blue sky, always shifting and changing. I sat on the porch in the afternoon and read books from the small library in Watson.
I liked going into Watson, though after San Francisco it seemed small and surprisingly quiet, as if everyone who lived there had left to do something else. The buildings on Main Street were square and seipia-colored, muted and brown, like an old quilt made of discarded men’s business suits. The small park was, in contrast, lush and green, with a fountain and a statue of a soldier holding a rifle, his helmet at an angle.
There was plenty to do on the farm, and I willingly helped my grandmother with her garden, a large plot of well-turned ground just to the right of the barn. She grew all her vegetables in long neat rows, carrots and spinach and asparagus and in one corner yellow squash. To my surprise I discovered that string beans came from vines, that carrots grew in rows, their orange roots deep in the ground, and that gardening meant weeding and watering and fighting with the bugs and the mule deer that drifted silently out of the trees at night. In the city, vegetables simply appeared in bins ready to be bought by the pound, like milk came in glass bottles, and chunks of red meat and chicken wrapped in waxy white paper which, I began to understand, was only the end of the story.
On Mondays, we cleaned and dusted all the rooms of the great old house and then did the laundry on the back screened porch using a huge galvanized tub next to an ancient white enameled washing machine that had a hand roller attached on top. Together we would stand in the warm sun, the wind blowing gently from all directions, and hang the white sheets and pillow cases on clothes lines that ran from the corner of the barn to wooden t-shaped poles. There was something lovely about the back yard filled with patches of white lifting and falling in the summer breeze, and my clothes, once dried, smelled of sunshine and fresh air.
And all the while I looked at the house in the distance and wondered. In my walks through the fields and woods I never saw anyone. Everything was quiet, no cars motored along the rutted road, no voices carried across the field.
My room was on the second floor in the back corner with two large windows, one looking out over the side yard to the woods beyond and the other facing the back looking down on the garden. Every night, before crawling into bed, I looked out the back window in the direction of the other house. And it was on one such June night, while I was gazing at a gibbous moon, its halo soft and lovely, the stars brighter than any I had ever seen in the city, a light suddenly blinked on in that small attic window. Briefly. Just for a moment. And then it was gone. I caught my breath and looked at the spot in the darkness where that small square of light had been, waiting until I felt chilled, the cool night air making me shiver. Finally, I crawled into bed, pushing deep under the covers, thinking of the attic window. I knew it, I said to myself. I felt it. The girl in woods. She was there, in that house.
A week later we drove into Watson. It was the Fourth of July and my grandmother said there would be a parade and a picnic in the park and if history was any a guide it would be an experience not to be missed. As it turned out, she was right.
Brown, dusty Watson, always silent and reserved, had been transformed. The brick and wood buildings were covered with patriotic bunting. Red and white and blue crepe paper hung in store windows. Everywhere, American flags waving from long and short poles, a band playing John Phillips Souza music in the park, and people, more people than I ever imagined lived in or near Watson, were gathered on each side of Main Street.
Some sat comfortably in folding patio chairs, others sat on curbs or lined up three or four deep on the sidewalk. Children ran back and forth carrying small paper flags or lighted sparklers and everyone talked and waited. Finally the band that had been playing in the park began gathering for the march down Main Street and a gradual quite took hold, everyone waiting. The parade was soon going to start.
Standing near the sidewalk curb, watching, my grandmother at my side, I was fascinated, never having seen anything quite like it: a small town in celebration, farmers and townspeople, talking, men in suits and overalls, most wearing hats, the sun bright, the heat dry and shimmering, women fanning themselves with red, white and blue fans, men drinking beer out of tall paper cups. As my eyes moved over the crowds, I saw a girl standing on the opposite side of the street. She was close to my age, a bit taller, perhaps, slender, but in all other ways different. Where I was fair and freckled, her skin was a creamy brown, her ropy black hair reaching down past her shoulders. Behind her stood a man, square and stocky, his deeply lined face broken by a thick salt and pepper mustache, wearing a faded denim shirt, buttoned at this throat, and a worn suit coat. He held a straw hat in one hand; the other hand rested on the girl’s shoulder. Of all the people on the street, I looked only at the girl, her face seeming, just for a moment, frightened, as if she wanted to run. It was at that moment that the man put his hat on and then placed both hands on her shoulders, giving the impression he was keeping her in place. He stood silently, looking toward the park where the band was assembling and she looked straight ahead, unseeing.
The band, forming rows of three, began to play, the brass and percussion music loud and enthusiastic and then, more or less in unison, marched down the street, their instruments swinging back and forth in time with the music, every step exaggerated. They were followed by men and women on horseback, western riders in big white hats and colorful shirts with fringe, waving, and then came a line of slow moving antique cars, some convertibles, with girls in spreading dresses sitting high on the back seats, waving at the crowd, their smiles wide and fixed. A man dressed up as Uncle Sam on stilts walked behind, throwing candy to the children who ran after him. The high school band came next, less synchronized but no less loud, two boys, carrying a large yellow and maroon banner that said Watson High School, taking the lead, baton twirlers on both sides. And while all this streamed by, I kept trying to get another glimpse of the girl.
Later we went to the park and ate at a long picnic table covered with plates of hot dogs and potato salad and warm, pyramids of yellow corn and apple and berry pies. Everyone was friendly, saying hello, some taking my hand when we were introduced. My grandmother was a long-time member of the community of Watson, knew almost everyone by his or her first name. With one hand on my shoulder she introduced me as her granddaughter, with pride in her voice, and I glowed inside and slipped my arm through hers as we walked through the park.
July passed slowly, a haze of warm days, mornings spent working with my grandmother in the garden, long afternoons walking alone down by the bay, sometimes swimming, diving and splashing in the cold, blue-green water and later laying on the hot sand, letting the sun turn my skin a briny white and brown. Each evening, just after supper, my grandmother and I would sit on the porch sipping iced tea and we would talk, she leafing through magazines, me with a heavy book on my lap, quietly watching the day end.
I had gotten a cream-colored library card from the Watson library and always had a stack of books in my room and time to read. Often I would lie in the tall grass of the backfield and lose myself in a story, balancing the heavy book on my chest, occasionally gazing up at the clouds and the milky blue sky. In many ways, unexpectedly, I was happier than I had been in a long time.
One afternoon, after a swim in the bay, my hair still wet and tied back with a long yellow ribbon, my shirt and shorts damp from my bathing suit, I walked the familiar path up from the dunes through the woods toward the house. Suddenly I heard a harsh voice in the distance call out, “Soledad! Soledad!”
I stopped and listened. Then I heard it again, “Soledad!” It came from across the field in the direction of the farmhouse. I could just make out a man, standing near the edge of the field. “Hija,” he called out. And then, unexpectedly, a girl appeared in the middle of the field, standing there, looking back at the man who was calling her. To my astonishment, instead of waving or calling back, she bolted toward the woods, running fast in my direction. She was wearing a white cotton dress and it clung to her legs as she ran, the high grass opening before her. I stood absolutely still, watching. The man called again, waiting, and then turned and walked toward the farmhouse. But the girl never looked back. She ran directly toward me, her lips pressed together, breathing hard, her long, single braid of hair lifting and falling. Her eyes seemed to focus and she saw me standing on the narrow trail and stopped.
In the shadows of the trees, soft beams of yellow sunlight surrounding us, we stood looking at each other, neither of us moving. It was the girl I had watched at the Fourth of July parade. Her eyes were brimming with tears, and I saw that she had been crying.
Then she was gone, running hard into the woods, angling away from me, quickly disappearing in the heavy brush and trees. I realized my heart had been beating hard, my mouth dry, and I couldn’t help wondering if I had seen her at all.
That night I stood looking out my bedroom window at the farmhouse. All was dark, not a light shone anywhere. The field and trees and the house merged together forming vague shapes; only the roofline was faintly visible against the night sky.
Earlier that evening I had asked my grandmother what Soledad meant and she said it was Spanish for solitary or alone. Soledad, I said to myself. A girl named Soledad. Who was she? Why had she run away? I wondered.
The next morning, late, a book in hand and my beach towel under my arm, I walked out to the backyard and again stood looking at the faint outline of the farmhouse in the distance. Wondering. All was quiet, still, the attic window, barely visible, a narrow dark square.
I walked along the path down to the ocean, planning to swim and then lie baking in the sand, reading my book, about the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, until lunchtime.
It was unusually warm, the morning haze long burned off, the ocean breezes light, and by mid-day, having walked the length of the beach searching for shells, imagining I, too, was on an island, completely alone, I was ready to have a cool glass of iced tea and sit at the kitchen table and share whatever my grandmother had planned for lunch.
Walking through the front door, I heard voices from the living room. Turning and looking in, I stared in disbelief. Sitting on the sofa was the man I had seen at the parade. Next to him was the girl from the woods. The one who had run. Soledad.
My grandmother looked over at me, saying, “Samantha, I’m glad you’ve returned. Come here, I want you to meet Mr. Cruz. And his daughter, Soledad.” Turning to Mr. Cruz, she said, “This is my granddaughter, Samantha.”
I looked at the man, and he smiled thinly and nodded his head. He had on dark work pants and a faded khaki shirt. Soledad, standing very still, glanced at me without recognition. She was wearing the same white cotton dress she had on that day in the woods, her ebony hair pulled back and tied with a simple white ribbon.
Setting my book down on a small hall table, I walked into the room and stood next to my grandmother who was seated on a straight back chair across from Mr. Martinez and the girl. She put out an arm, motioning for me to come closer. “Samantha, Mr. Cruz is here to ask us for a favor. He tells me that he and his family must make a trip to Mexico to attend to some family business. He says that Soledad would prefer not to go. In fact, she wants very much not to go. He has observed that we live here, just the two of us, and he wants to know if we would be kind enough to have Soledad stay with us until he and his brothers can return. Which would be some time in early September.”
I glanced first at my grandmother then at Soledad, who sat hard against the arm of the sofa. She looked past me as if she were studying a picture on the wall.
I stood leaning against the side of my grandmother’s chair and she reached out and took my hand, saying, “I told Mr. Cruz that considering we have this big house all to ourselves and more than enough room, well, I thought it would be fine. And that you might welcome the company.”
I glanced down at my grandmother, hesitating, then quickly said, “Sure. That’d be fine, Gram.” And having said that, I shot a look at Soledad who sat very still, her eyes averted.
“So that settles it, Mr. Cruz. You go on your trip to Mexico, and we’ll have Soledad here when you return.”
Mr. Cruz stood and so did my grandmother and he shook her hand, saying, “Senora, thank you, I am very grateful for your kindness.”
We stood on the porch, watching father and daughter walk along the side road back to their farm, Soledad off to the left, trailing behind. She reached back and untied the ribbon holding her hair, pulling it free, giving her hair a shake and it fell down her back, long and very black against her white dress.
That afternoon my grandmother and I worked in the garden, gathering tomatoes and carrots, and committing assault and battery on the weeds that seemed to grow almost over night. Standing close, a row of lettuce separating us, my grandmother stopped her weeding and looked over at me. “Samantha, I know I should have discussed this change with you. But Mr. Cruz seemed a bit desperate and you spend so much time alone. I thought it might be a good thing for everyone, and Soledad looks to be a nice young lady.”
I had, of course, given the situation some thought. I smiled and said, “It’s fine, Gram. Really. She seems nice.”
“Good. I hoped you would feel that way. Was certain you would. And we’ll do all we can to make her feel at home.”
That night I went to bed and for the first time didn’t give the attic window even a passing look. My curiosity still burned, but having Soledad, the girl from the woods, actually living with my grandmother and me, well, I’d have a chance to ask my questions.
The next morning, early, I heard voices downstairs. I saw it was barely light, the sky still gray with night fog, steam rising in wispy fingers off the damp barn roof. Pulling on my khaki shorts and shirt and a sweater, I ran quickly down stairs. Two people were standing on the front porch talking, and through the open door I saw an old battered pickup truck, covered with a patina of dust, parked on the turnaround in the front yard. I stood at the bottom of the stairs for a moment, waiting. My grandmother was saying something to someone who stood just out of view. It was then that I noticed a suitcase near the entry to the living room and there, sitting very stiff and straight on a chair, was Soledad. She had arrived.
Mr. Cruz came into the house and glancing at me, nodded, then turned toward Soledad. “Soledad, I go. Ahora. Regresamos dentro dos meses.” We will return within two months.
Soledad stood and taking a deep breath, her hands clasped tightly in front of her, walked toward her father, nodding, stopping, saying softly, “Si, padre. Entiendo. Adios.”
He raised a hand in her direction, awkwardly, as if he meant to wave, and then dropped it to his side, turned and went out on the porch. I heard him say something to my grandmother, and through the door I watched him walk slowly to the truck, getting in. He closed the door firmly, leaning forward, starting the motor, the sound breaking the early morning silence. I watched as the pickup drove slowly away.
My grandmother came inside and clapping her hands, smiled at Soledad and me, and said, “Well, Sam, shall we show Soledad where she’ll be sleeping?”
Soledad was to be in the room across the hall from mine and the three of us walked up stairs, Soledad carrying her small suitcase. I saw that the bed was freshly made and flowers, cut from the garden, were bunched in a creamy porcelain vase on the nightstand and an extra quilt was folded at the foot of the bed. The room had two large windows that looked out over the front yard and driveway and every morning it was filled with light. In the distance, beyond the laurels and oaks, was a ribbon of blue, the Pacific.
The room smelled of soap and wax and fresh mint. Though I hadn’t heard her, Grandma had been busy early that morning, wanting, I could see, to make Soledad welcome. The same way she had welcomed me. Soledad set her suitcase just inside the door and looked around, her face revealing nothing.
“Well, Samantha, shall we let Soledad get settled in?” she said and walked out the door, giving my arm a touch as she went, and I followed. From the hall she turned and looked in at Soledad, saying, “You make yourself at home. You need anything, just ask.”
And that was how it began. The first week, I showed Soledad the farm and took her down to the bay where we sat on the log watching the waves and pelicans glide across the water and walked back through woods, making our way among the stands of birch, oak and laurel trees that bordered the farm. She never protested, coming along, saying little, and often seemed distant and preoccupied.
She gladly worked with grandma and me in the garden and helped without being asked around the house. She had been around a washtub, it was clear, and scrubbed the sheets with practiced movements and pinned them expertly on the lines. She could iron and cook and I heard grandma ask her if she had a favorite dish she might like to prepare, but Soledad retreated into silence and a smile that was to become familiar in the weeks ahead. A smile of polite withdrawal.
My grandmother mentioned to me that Soledad knew her way around a garden and a kitchen, and growing up probably hadn’t had time to do much else. “In fact, Samantha, this might be her first summer to have the chance to wander without looking over her shoulder. Not all young people have that, especially not children like Soledad, and we certainly didn’t ask her here to wait on us or do housework. Old people can do most of that. Young people, like you and Soledad, well, I always felt youngsters needed time to look at the ocean and put creases in your library cards. Has to be time to count the stars or what’s a childhood for? So, you be patient, you take her along wherever, and see if she doesn’t get the hang of it.”
Children like Soledad, my grandmother had said, with a sound of regret in her voice. Why had she stayed behind? With us? I asked my grandmother this question, but she seemed reluctant to tell me much about our guest, saying only, “All in good time. You get to know her, Samantha, then see if you can’t decide for yourself.”
One morning I stopped by her room, her door slightly ajar, and saw she was sitting by one of the large windows, looking off in the distance. Before she knew I was there, I saw a look of deep sadness on her face, and I was sure her eyes were damp with tears.
Hesitating, I knocked softly on the door and when she looked over at me she tried to smile. She didn’t say anything, and, feeling suddenly awkward, I told her that it was time that we made a trip into Watson. She needed a library card, and we’d have to fix up two old bikes stored in the barn and we could ride in together.
“Come on,” I said. “See what you think.”
Silently, Soledad followed me into the barn, dim light coming through the dusty windows. She walked just behind me and when I pulled back the dusty tarp, I said, “Ta da.” I admit that the two bikes weren’t much, the tires flat, paint chipped and peeling, rims pitted and brown with rust.
We worked the rest of the afternoon polishing and tightening. I had been surprised at Soledad’s willingness to tackle the project. She didn’t hesitate to lift off the old chains from the sprockets, greasy and caked with dirt, working silently with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver and rags, using some solvent Gram had in a can, cleaned the badly rusted links.
We oiled and adjusted and checked each spoke with care and with the chains again in place, tubes and tires in place on the rims, and using an old pump I had earlier found in back of a chest of drawers, we filled the tires until they were firm, listening for a hiss of leaking air.
We finished before dinner and the bikes stood leaning against the barn door transformed. Soledad looked at them critically and for the briefest of moments, smiled. Our faces and hands were streaked with grease and strands of hair stuck to our damp foreheads and fell across our faces and all we could do was push them back with the back of our wrists.
Soledad took one of the bikes, first rolling it back and forth, then got on and rode it unsteadily around the open yard grinning while Gram and I clapped at her bumpy effort. I did the same, and we circled one another grinning with Gram encouraging and praising us for a job well done.
The next morning we rode into Watson, the day already hot with only the slightest breeze pushing us along toward town. Our first stop was the library where Soledad selected three books and received a stiff new library card, her name, Soledad Cruz, typed in square black letters on one side. I noticed that when she was asked her address she gave Gram’s rural route number as her own. The librarian, a young woman wearing small rimless glasses, new to the library but not to Watson, looked up at Soledad and then at me her eyes asking a question and I looked back as if nothing could have been more correct.
Gradually, Soledad seemed to relax, her remoteness dissolving under the weight of my grandmother’s kindness and my unrelenting efforts to include her in the world I had only recently discovered myself. Most mornings we walked down to the small bay and searched the beach for shells and small sticks worn smooth by water and sand.
Often, in the late afternoons, we lay in the small meadow reading, watching the clouds drift overhead, some forming familiar shapes of animals and houses. And before long, Soledad was wearing faded khaki shorts, sandals and light cotton blouses, our summer uniform. And the days seemed to drift by, almost dream like.
At first I asked her questions – cautious, casual questions, barely touching the surface. Once, going into Watson in Gram’s ancient green Chevy sedan, and while Gram shopped for sundries, we sat on a bench next to Rocky’s market, a small grocery store near the park in Watson, owned by a Japanese man who spoke little English and whose name was indeed Rocky. We sipped orange sodas and idly talked while we watched the people of Watson pass by. I found out that Soledad’s favorite color was red, romantic red, she called it. When I asked, she said she’d never had a real boyfriend. Having a boyfriend took time, time in one place, and she was always moving. From one town to the next.
Soledad had been places, seen things that I knew I couldn’t even begin to imagine. And I wanted to know about everything. But there was one question above all that I wanted to ask and hadn’t. It was, I knew, deeply personal and perhaps it could only be answered by revealing more than Soledad was prepared to reveal. But it was the one thing I wanted to know above all: why had Soledad chosen to stay with us instead of going with her father? As it turned out, it was Soledad who asked me the first hard question.
After a time she turned to me, pushing her heavy braid back over her shoulder, saying, “Sam, you live with your grandmother in that wonderful house. But… where’re your parents?”
I told her about the fishing boat, how my dad was convinced he had been some sea captain in another life, and would only be happy a mile off shore, and then I explained about my mother, the Hollywood beauty queen, who was spending her days in Hollywood, wishing and waiting to be discovered.
“Your mom, she’s trying to be in the movies? Really? In Hollywood? You mean like a real movie star?”
I nodded my head, my look sad yet resigned. “Yep,” I said. “She wants to be up on the silver screen. You know, very dramatic stuff and lots of tears. Or standing in some smoky nightclub next to the piano, singing weepy songs, wearing a white, slinky satin dress. The nightclub is in North Africa and there are Germans everywhere, carrying guns, and everyone who meets her falls in love with her. Actually, my mom can sing. But, what she can really do is cry at the drop of a hat. I’ve seen her. She says it’s a gift.”
“So that’s how you ended up with your grandmother.”
“Yeah. Just at the beginning of the summer. My mom dropped me off on her way south. At first I felt angry and lost, and for a while I missed San Francisco, where we lived, which is noisy and sort of exciting. Even at night you hear cars and sirens and the foghorns out on the bay. Watson is amazingly quiet and slow and the farm is like church, it’s so quiet. At first it was kind of spooky. Then this strange thing happened. I started liking the quiet, living on the farm. Being with my grandmother. Working in her garden. And then you came and, well, it’s been even better.
“But Soledad… I mean there’s something I want to ask you, too. You remember that day in the woods, when you were running across the field, then you were in the trees and suddenly we were face to face? You seemed scared. And the way you ran off, it was like you were never coming back. How come you didn’t go with your father to Mexico? He seemed like he wanted you to go with him. I mean, unlike my folks who don’t want a kid tagging along.”
Soledad had finished her soda and was pushing one corner of the damp label with her thumb, studying it closely.
“My mother, she’s in Texas,” she began, glancing over at me then glancing away, into the distance. “She had to go back to help my older brother and his wife who had a baby last spring. My mother left just after Easter. One of my father’s brothers is also in Mexico, and we haven’t heard from him for awhile. No one talks about why. I asked, for weeks I pestered my father, but no one would say. Anyway, my father and his brothers work on the big farms. This summer they wanted me to go with them, help my mother. And in the fall, since my mother’s gone, I would have to skip school completely and return to work with them in the fields on a farm, picking cotton.”
“What’s it like? In the fields?” I asked.
Soledad hesitated, seeing the people passing by but not seeing them, her thoughts reaching back.
“The days all start the same, getting up early, shivering in the cold air, still tired from the day before. By noon the heat covers you, surrounds you, and if you look across the fields you see hundreds of mirages, shimmering and silver, like pools of water. And sweat runs down your back and face and drips from your chin onto the ground. And everything is covered with the dust of the fields. Everything. It gets in your hair, under your nails, in the pores of your skin. Even your teeth feel gritty and your mouth tastes bitter and salty. And then there’s the smell. It’s sweet and terrible like fruit left out in the sun too long, or vegetables gone brown and moldy and it makes you want to cover your nose and sometimes just not breathe at all. My arms tremble and my legs feel like they’ll collapse.
“I hate it. Moving all the time. Once, after my mother left, I ran away. But they found me. Brought me back. I don’t ever want to go back, not to the farms, not to pick or sort the fruit or pack the crates, standing all day in the hot sun. But most of all I didn’t want to miss school. I guess when I think about it, going to school made everything else at least bearable. Always, it’d been that no matter where we went, somehow I managed to go to school. In the mornings, I’d go early, walk into town and wait outside the school for the bell to ring. I’d leave right away in the afternoon so I could get back and help. I never knew anyone because we moved from farm to farm, but wherever we were, I’d beg to go to the school and my mother would take me and she’d spend the morning enrolling me for however long we were going to stay. And I’d sit in a strange class, listening to the teacher talk about Peru and feel excited when I was given a spelling book or a history book. I didn’t care. I was in a classroom. Sitting at a desk. Strange, I know. But I love being in school. I love everything about it: the lessons, the spelling tests, math problems, the way things look and smell. Sometimes I would steal a small piece of chalk and take it home, sit alone on the edge of my bed and hold it in my hand, tasting it, rolling it back and forth between my hands, making my palms white. And I would picture myself standing in front of the class with that chalk and writing on the blackboard. I was the teacher. Me.”
Soledad paused, looked over at me, here eyes moist, her mouth a thin line. “Any way, soon my father’ll return and say it’s time to head back toward the valley, like we always do, work the fall crops. With my mom gone… I know I’ll probably never go to school again. I’ll have to help out all the time. It isn’t that my father doesn’t want me to go to school. He does. He’s smart. He knows how important it is. But it’s a matter of surviving. Every person counts. It’s always been like that. Everyone has to work and there’s never enough time to do anything else.”
Soledad turned to me, her face lined with pain, and slowly a tear rolled down her cheek.
“God, Sam, what I really want, more than anything, is to stay in one place and come home to the same house and do my homework at the dining room table and then sit on the back porch and look up at the stars and then go to bed in these really white sheets and then do the same thing the next day. There was this one time, we were at this farm for maybe a month, not far from a good size town, it was up north and on Sundays I’d walk into town and I’d sit on a bus bench or in the park and I’d watch the people, trying to imagine where they lived, what their lives were like, did they eat dinner in the kitchen or the dining room. Was there a kitchen with a table and could you stand at the sink and look out into the back yard, maybe at a garden or flowers. Like your grandmother does. Just stand at the sink and look out at the garden, at the sheets drying on the clotheslines. Simple stuff. And if I saw some girl on the street, walking along with her mom I’d wish, with all my might that her life was mine, even for a day, just so I could know what it felt like. To live in this really ordinary, special way.
“And suddenly, that’s what I’m doing. I’m living in a house, your grandmother is so incredibly kind to me, and it’s better than I ever imagined. See, at first, I thought your grandmother would make me do the housework and the laundry, like it was part of the deal. But instead, I am sitting here with you, Sam, on this bench, outside a place called Rockey’s, and your grandmother is so nice to me I can’t believe it.”
I admit that it had never occurred to me when I saw Soledad for the first time that she assumed that her father had made a deal with my grandmother. A trade. Soledad would do housework, like some maid, and in exchange she could stay with us.
I nodded my head, saying, “From the beginning, my grandmother said that you could help, but in the same way I do. There’s always housework that needs doing. But she wanted me to take you along to all the places I liked and insisted that we have fun.”
Soledad nodded and looked over at me, her eyes shiny from tears.
“I know. It didn’t take long for me to understand how different it was going to be. It’s been the most amazing thing to go down to the bay or walk in the woods and feel so free. Read books, sit on the porch, look for shells, search for wildflowers to bring back to the house. Like having all these days that are our very own. Staying with you has been so great, Sam. But, there’s one thing.”
“There’s something I want to ask you. And your grandmother. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I mean, I’m not sure it’s even possible, but…”
“What is it?”
Soledad grew quiet, her head turned away from me, as if she were looking at something down the street. I decided to wait, to let her find the words and the moment.
“Well, do you think it would be possible… I mean, do you think I might be able to stay here with you and your grandmother this fall? When school starts?”
“You mean, like permanently? Always? But what about your father?”
“Sam, no matter what… I mean, I love my family, but I can’t go back to the fields. I won’t get to go to school or be able to go to the library or sit on the beach just looking at the waves. I’ll be too tired to even want to read a book. I’d probably run away for good. I know I would. It’s like… ”
I looked at Soledad and her face was so sad and determined and she took the corner of the label on her soda and tore it from one corner to the next. She sat facing forward and I knew she wasn’t seeing anything except her decision, her wish, now spoken, hovering before us.
“We’d have to talk to my grandmother about it.”
“What do you think she’ll say?” she asked.
“I don’t know. But as for me? If you could stay with us? I mean, like for good? It would be so great. We’d have so much fun. We could go to school together, do our homework together, help my grandmother keep up the house and the garden and go to the beach whenever we wanted.”
Soledad reached over and covered my hand with hers and nodded her head. “That’s it. What you said, Sam. It’s all I’ve thought about for days. Practically since I got here. Not wanting things to change.”
“We’ll have to talk to Gram. First thing. I mean, what if your father says you can’t, that you have to go with him. I mean, you’re just a kid. I’m just a kid. We’ll talk to her tonight. When we’re sitting on the porch after dinner.”
That night Soledad and I did the dishes and straightened the kitchen then joined my grandmother on the porch. She was sitting in her favorite bentwood rocker and working on a needlepoint pillow that she had started long before I arrived. Soledad and I sat in two cane chairs near a table stacked with magazines. We each had a book, and at first we tried to read, glancing over at my grandmother, knowing there would be no right moment to start but waiting for one to present itself.
I looked out at the trees, dark smudges in the half light of early evening. A soft, cool breeze from the ocean reached us, bringing traces of salt water and grass and night blooming jasmine.
My grandmother looked up from her needlepoint and smiled, saying, “So, girls, are you going to share your thoughts with me before I get too much older?” She said this and smiled, seeing our surprised and startled looks. “Not to worry, ladies. All evening you both look like something is weighing on you. Fess up, you two, what’s cooking?”
Soledad and I gave each other a sidelong glance and I knew that it was up to me to start. “Well, there is something. There’s a question we want to ask you.”
My grandmother looked up at me, her needlepoint frame now resting in her lap. She always offered me her complete attention, listened to what I had to say, giving my opinions as much weight as if I had been a lady friend or a judge.
“Of course. Ask away, ladies.”
“Well, it’s about Soledad. Staying here, with us.”
My grandmother looked at Soledad and then back at me, saying,
“Is everything all right?”
I started to say something when Soledad leaned forward. She had her hands clasped around the book that was resting in her lap, her face grim and earnest and afraid.
“Everything is, well, perfect. What I want to ask… do you think, I mean would it be okay if I stayed here with you and Sam, past this summer? Sam and I could go to school and I’d help. I mean a lot. Around the house and the farm. I know how to winter garden and…”
Soledad’s voice trailed off, becoming softer, almost lost in her need and hope. “You see, I love it here and I don’t want to leave. All the things that I love to do, I wouldn’t be able to do including going back to school.”
“But your father and your family, child. Don’t you want to be with them?”
“Right now there’s just my father and some work men who travel with us.”
My grandmother listened as Soledad told about her life and working in the fields and traveling, living in small shacks on huge farms, the grinding, exhausting routine, and her face grew grim and sad. “But your father…” Gram said, seeing immediately Soledad’s fear.
“I know, and what he’ll say is that he needs me with him. To help in the fields.”
I told my grandmother how Soledad’s mother was in Texas. And that almost all of the kids who work in the fields, they stop going to school when they’re young, but that Soledad had gone on much longer than most and didn’t want to stop. And what she wanted more than anything else was a life like the one we’ve had all this summer.
“Have you told your father how you feel? I know, Soledad, that you’ve run away. But does your father really know why?”
Soledad thought about my grandmother’s question for a long moment, her thumb pressing down on the spine of her book, her eyes lost as she considered her answer.
“No, ma’am, I guess we’ve never talked about everything. I’ve tried to tell him but he never seems to let me finish.”
“Well, when your father returns, we can talk to him. Lord knows, there’s plenty of room for you. And I welcome the company, and can use the help. Soledad, I want you to know that your father is the one who we’ll have to explain this to, and if he says no, and he insists that he wants you with him, there’s precious little I can do to help you child. The law is very clear on this point.”
“But what if he won’t let Soledad stay here? What if he makes her go with him and she doesn’t want to?” I asked.
“Sam, why don’t we take this one step at a time. When Mr. Cruz returns, we’ll see what he has to say. It’s my impression that he cares about Soledad a great deal and hopefully he will agree that being in one place and going to school might just be the best thing for her. First, ladies, we ask the question. Give him a chance to hear what you’ve told me. Then we figure it all out after that. Together.”
Soledad and I nodded in agreement. What else could we do but wait, and, in the meantime, there was still some summer left. Meaning the rest of August. Warm, balmy days that stretched beyond sunset.
And so we walked in the woods, rode into town on our bikes, even when it drizzled with a misty, gray rain, and played down by the bay, swimming until our lips were a mottled blue, then digging in the sand for sand dollars and small brown shells. We sat for hours, our backs resting up against the smooth log, sheltered from the afternoon breeze and talked of Hollywood, my mom, and tried to imagine what her life would be like if she became a star.
I had learned that Soledad could put her imagination into third gear at the drop of a hat and, with little prompting, create a story that would make me laugh until my sides hurt.
Just the word Hollywood seemed magical and she put a hand on my shoulder and said, “No, Sam. Wait. Wait. Here’s how it’ll be. We’ll all be sitting on the porch, your granny and you and me, and the phone will ring. And we’ll all sort of jump because, I mean, how often this summer has the phone rung? Two times? And one of those was a wrong number. The call is for you and it’s from Hollywood. Movie star heaven. That geography where all that glitters is not silver and gold but people. The stars of the big screen. They glitter. They shine. They attract moths in the night, their light is so bright. And your mom has been discovered. She’s become a firefly. And she says to you over the phone, she says, ‘Samantha, daaaahliiinng, you must come down here to ma daaavine villa and you must staaayyy with me heah, because, daaaahliiiing, I have a pool and the teensiest poodle. And an extraaa room or two. Or four or five. I’ve lost count.’
“And you squeal and jump up and down with excitement. And you wait for three days on the porch, never leaving, never changing your clothes, all your meals are brought to you and served on the small table, and at night you insist on sleeping in the porch swing, all the while waiting for the chauffer to arrive up in the black Packard town car with a hood ornament that is bigger than a watering can.
“You leave and, of course, you forget to wave goodbye and your grandmother and I stand on the porch and watch as you slip into a huge mink coat that is waiting for you on the back seat and you are already painting your lips a deep red, and playing the radio that is built into the back of the front seat, just behind the chauffer, whose name is Henry.”
I looked at Soledad, shaking my head, grinning, loving all of it, amazed, and said in return, “I would appreciate it if you would give me your library card right now and I think it would be best if you never read another movie magazine about Hollywood, or another book about romance. And you would do well to stay away from motion pictures for at least a year or two.”
But the truth is, though I was angry and hurt still, my feelings for my mother more confusing than not, I would have indeed jumped if my mother had called, most likely not to beg me to join her, but just to say hello. But she didn’t. Not once that summer and the postcards finally stopped, the last one arriving at the end of July, saying little other than “Hello. Having a ball. Hope all is well. Will call soon. Hugs to you both. Love Mom.” And now, having Soledad with us, having come to love my grandmother beyond all my expectations, I’m not sure I would go even if she pleaded with me. Which I knew was not going to happen.
Soledad’s father did not return on the last day of August or that first week of September. School would start soon and the tension that had shrouded our days as summer drew to a close became an unspoken burden. We had rehearsed our arguments, made speeches to one another and to Gram as we built our case for Soledad remaining with us on the farm. Soledad’s face would brighten with hope, momentarily convinced that we were being magnificently persuasive, and then fall silent, tight with worry.
Gram had even made tentative inquiries about enrolling Soledad in Watson Middle School and brought home a stack of papers to fill out, leafing through them, wondering what to say in the box that asked for parental or guardian information.
She had called a cousin in Santa Cruz who was a retired lawyer and spoke on the phone for almost an hour about legal matters and how to address custody of Soledad so the school district would be satisfied.
She had hung up and informed us that she thought she had it worked out. It was now up to Mr. Cruz.
Each evening we sat on the porch, feeling the late summer wind growing cool, edged with fall. We all wore light sweaters and sipped hot tea and listened to the cicadas high in the trees.
It was dusk, the last of the light fading, and we were sitting in the kitchen, finishing our dinner, when we heard the sound of a truck coming up our road to the front yard. It had drizzled lightly all afternoon so there was no dust, and the grass and trees shimmered in the last of the day’s light. I heard Soledad next me to me gasp, saying something that was lost to me.
“Well, girls, looks like we have company. Now, Soledad, not to worry. Let’s just see how things go.”
I felt completely unprepared for his arrival. The three of us had struck an unspoken pact not to mention the return of Soledad’s father; instead, we let the days drift by, our collective wish that they never end.
Mr. Cruz stopped the truck, shutting off the engine. Taking off his hat, he walked slowly toward the porch as if he were deeply tired.
He stopped at the foot of the steps and stood looking up at the three of us, my grandmother standing near the top of the stairs. “Good evening, Mr. Cruz. We’ve been expecting you.”