Vignettes from Strawberry Fields
Joaquin turned fifteen the summer of ’65.
The red Ford truck stopped. It was the last leg of the trip. Joaquin had earlier seen a road sign that read “Corpus Christi 70 miles.” The live oak belt lay behind them and toward the south lay the south Texas prickly desert. The gypsy-like caravan of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks and sedans pulled into the Texas roadside park. Anxious to stretch their legs, Joaquin and Bennie jumped out from behind the canvas tarp that covered the truck bed even before the truck came to a complete stop. Bennie was a tad darker and shorter by an inch. They both wore jeans and white tee shirts. Joaquin’s sun-browned hair was shoulder-length after a full three-month summer growth. Bennie sported a clean crew cut. Manda followed much later, making her way down the sturdy plank, favoring her left hip as she walked.
As the lines formed at the men’s and ladies’ restrooms, Manda pulled her two boys away from the others out toward a small, dry limestone creek bed meagerly landscaped with two yucca plants and a Sabal palm.
Hardly a thought about Benancio had entered Joaquin’s mind that summer. Benancio had stayed behind in San Felipe, and Sis had stayed behind as well. She had graduated high school that spring and gotten a job at the San Felipe hardware store. Now, Manda and the boys were returning from the Michigan strawberry and cucumber fields with a few hundred dollars in their pockets, ready for the start of a new school year. Manda had run the numbers their first day in the strawberry fields and shown Joaquin her calculations:
“A tray of strawberries translates into a hamburger, fries, and an orange drink. Twelve trays should produce a pair of jeans. School lunch for the kids costs 25 cents a day times three kids times five days a week times four times a month times nine months. That totals one hundred and thirty-five dollars and requires one hundred fifty-three trays of strawberries.”
On that particular day, the strawberry fields had yielded sixteen trays: five for Manda, four for Bennie, and seven for Joaquin.
Some four months earlier, Benancio had been at work when the red Ford truck arrived in San Felipe to collect them. Joaquin had hoped, to no avail, that his papa might make it to the departure. Would it make a difference anyway? Joaquin wondered. Their goodbyes had always proved awkward—for the two boys and for their papa. It was unfamiliar ground. Are we supposed to hug? Are we supposed to say, “I love you, papá?” What was papá supposed to say? The questions whirled in Joaquin’s brain.
Now, on the return trip, it was Joaquin whom Manda pulled close to her.
“Your father’s not going to be home when we get back, m’hijo (my son).”
Joaquin’s focus was elsewhere. Not the least bit suspicious, he asked her, “Oh? Where is he?” shading his eyes from the relentless south Texas sun, waiting for Manda’s response.
“No, I mean, he… he’s gone,” Manda answered in a sigh that was short of sincere. “M’ijo, we’ve divorced.”
There was no blame or anger or resentment in her voice. She faced Joaquin under the hot Texas sun, her entreating eyes probing for some reaction from him. “Gone away… forever?” was all he could muster.
Joaquin frowned, and the tensed muscles of his face weakened. The sweat beaded at his forehead, and he sniffed as if his nasal passages were cluttering. His breath became weighted down, and he turned to breathing through an open mouth to help quell the cry. Without a handkerchief, he swallowed his snot and spit and tears.
Bennie just looked on, his face reflecting slight concern—and that was all.
“It’s okay, son. If you’re worried about me, don’t be,” Manda whispered near Joaquin’s ear, attempting to comfort him by offering a reassuring hug.
Joaquin stiffened up. He stared at her, searched into her eyes, his own glassy eyes grasping out for pity. I knew it. I always knew it…that he would eventually leave.
Manda reached out for him with her arms in a consoling gesture. Joaquin moved away and shook his head. Don’t! He felt as if his entire soul wanted to cry out—to scream, to break windows, and to tear up stuff and stomp at the ground.
Manda sighed empathetically and, turning to Bennie, offered, “You will pardon me, my sons, but I am all out of tears.”
Joaquin cringed, rotating his head back as far as he could.
Still, Bennie looked on. He had crossed his arms across his chest and taken on the look of an interested observer.
Taken aback to those early days as a child, Joaquin recalled those nights when his mother’s contained sobs would distract him from sleep. The bed he shared with his brother Bennie would creak and sway a little when he would sneak out of it to slip into bed with Manda and snuggle right up against his mother’s fold, like a pup seeking the reassuring warmth of its mama’s soft middle. Between her sobs, Manda would acknowledge Joaquin with a hug and kiss the back of his head. There was nothing he could do for Manda; Joaquin knew that. Yet, there was something about him just being there, close to her, with his naïve empathy, which seemed to calm her, strengthen her, and give her resolve. Manda seemed to be consoled by this simple gesture, and they would both eventually fall asleep.
But by that summer of ‘65, Manda was all out of tears.
For book reviews of Strawberry Fields, see the January 2021 Edition of IberoAztlan.