Dan Holden's Creative Writing
At four in the morning, it’s hard to see your hands in front of your face…which was a good thing, because Ramon had not bathed in days, and his hands were black with dirt and vegetable oil and sweat. So he tucked them between his knees as the bus rolled through the misty night.
Even this early, in this darkness, Ramon always felt his heart speed up as the bus bumped its way to the end of town, to a traditional stop within walking distance of Maria’s little house.
His back straightened as he squinted to see her.
There in the cold mist she stood, a shadow among shadows, but he always knew which one was her.
She was taller than her friends of course, but there was something else, una cierto brillo, a certain glow and a flowery scent filled the green metal cabin of the bus even as she walked silently up its steps.
For some reason, nobody talked much on the way to work; the chatter was always saved for later, at the end of the day. This always irked Ramon; he imagined that the noise would have hidden his shy attempts to speak with Maria, shielding their conversation from curious ears.
But as shy as he was, he knew that even those few minutes would likely have gone by in silence, as they did every evening.
The world-famous artichoke farms of Castroville lie on flatlands and gentle slopes that extend from the foggy beaches of California’s Pacific eastward, to the dark and looming Santa Cruz Mountains.
Dawn breaks high overhead, in brilliant blue and white gold, but the light is always slow to kiss the workers in the field. So they labor in darkness and half light, covered from head to foot against the chilly mist like monks in prayer. They move constantly, methodically, along the chest-high plants, stepping purposefully through the rich, dark soil.
Traditionally, it is the men who wear the thick gloves, slice the heavy artichoke hearts from their stems, and toss them deftly into large canvas backpacks. The women stand on a rolling metal platform, a long iron bridge that extends over a dozen rows of plants and workers. They trim the plants, throw out the rotten picks, and box the artichokes for shipping.
Years ago, the entire operation would have started hours later, when there was better light for the dangerous cutting. But the new platforms are fitted with great floodlights that create a false morning, a surreal representation of day that spares the plants from further shock in the warmer afternoon air.
Here Ramon worked, relentlessly whacking away at artichoke hearts.
And with every slice, he would say to himself, “Aquí hay otro corazón para usted, mi Maria.”
But Maria never heard, nor did she really even see him most of the time. Instead she stood transfixed on her slowly moving pedestal, like the Virgin herself, head bowed as she turned the hearts that passed quickly before her on a plastic conveyor belt.
“She is making my hearts pure,” he thought to himself, smiling; “un corazón puro es una alma pura.”
Under the floodlights, the dew on her thick brown hair and softly rounded shoulders sparkled gold and silver, and her round face and cotton-covered breasts glowed in the reflection of the conveyor belt. Even her hands seemed magnificent, their delicate brown warmth caressing each heart like a supplication to God.
She was the angel of the fields, el corazón del valle – the heart of the valley, and everyone knew it.
“Better watch what you are doing,” said Ramon’s friend Alphonse from the next row over. “If you’re not careful you will cut your dick off, then you won’t have anything to give her,” he laughed.
“Aw, shut up,” muttered Ramon.
“When are you gonna talk to her Ramon?” asked Alphonse thoughtfully. “She’s not getting any younger.”
“Never mind,” said Ramon. Irritated, he grabbed at the next heart and yanked it out of the ground completely. There it hung in his hands, dangling like a baby with its diaper stripped away.
Alphonse laughed loudly, catching the attention of the women who tittered from the platform. Soon the whole field was alive with conversation and laughter.
Ramon realized he was the first joke of the day.
“Bueno,” he muttered, glancing again at Maria on the platform.
And then, there it was: La Mirada, The Look.
Their eyes met. It was powerful and spiritual, all at the same time, like a vision, a dream. She smiled the coy smile of an elegant Mexican beauty, with a slight upturn at one side of her gorgeous full lips teasing a dimple from her cheek, a brilliant flash of large white teeth, a decided sparkle in her dark eyes. For a moment, she seemed as warm as the sun.
She liked him, he could see that. From la mirada, he knew there was no question about it.
He stood in his row like a disciple in rapture, smiling back at her, his entire being on fire. He felt powerful, whole, complete, fulfilled. His heart felt bigger than the fields and the valley itself.
“See?” said Alphonse, smacking Ramon’s shoulder and breaking the magic, “you gotta talk to her.”
Ramon didn’t say anything. He worked the rest of that day with a smile on his face, stronger, faster, happier than he had felt in years. He only glanced her way a few times after that; he didn’t want to spoil the memory of la mirada.
Castroville is a small town in the middle of a wide, fertile valley. It has just one school each for elementary, junior and high school students; two churches; a couple of gas stations, and two strip malls with fast food restaurants and fruit stands along main road. The tiny old town section is so small you can walk it in less than a minute. The night life – bars, dance halls and pool rooms – are tame compared to nearby places like Salinas and Monterey. Everyone here works the fields, so everyone goes to bed early. Except on Bingo nights.
Ramon wasn’t big on Bingo, or any kind of night life really. He preferred to sit at home with his buddies from work, talking about their hometowns in Texas, Arizona, California or Mexico. They swapped old stories about relatives so many times everyone was confused as to who told them the first time. On a rare day off, the men would gather to work on someone’s shack or in someone else’s garage, fixing this or that little problem, trading stories about buying sports cars and tricking them out for carreras.
“Hey Ramon,” said Alphonse as he walked up the driveway to Ramon’s family’s house that Saturday morning, “Carlito wants us to come over. He has a new truck to show us. Come on!”
Ramon squinted into the morning sun as if he was thinking of something more important to do. Ramon always like to give the impression he had something more important to do. It made Alphonse feel like he had accomplished something if he could convince Ramon to come along.
“Ramon, you know Maria lives across the street from Carlito. Let’s go, you know you want to see her!”
Ramon could barely suppress his smile. He was anxious to see Maria again, away from the fields, if only for a few minutes…
It turns out that Carlito’s truck wasn’t really much to see. It was pretty beat up. In fact it kind of looked like it had been rolled at least once, but it was a big Ford – not one of those tiny little Japanese trucks that everyone else drove. It had a good radio too. Carlito tuned it to a station playing a Mariachi song by Estela Nunez, mostly just to keep Carlito’s Papa from chasing everyone away.
They talked about all the things they would like to do if they had money. Ramon would buy a ranch, un rancho viejito he had seen nearby with una casa grande con muchas casitas de campo so he could move his family and friends there. He wanted to make all his friends into ranch hands so they would always be around. They argued about who would manage the crew, who would fix the tractors, tend the horses, muck the stalls.
“Alphonse, he’ll be the one to muck the stalls,” laughed Carlito.
“If I’m mucking stalls you’ll be changing diapers for el hijo de Ramón,” shot back Alphonse, with a wink to Ramon.
“Ramon’s kid? You gotta kid on the way Ramon? Something you’re not telling us?” asked Carlito, as he sat on an overturned bucket against the wall.
“Naw, he’s just messing with you, Carlito,” said Ramon quietly, not wanting the conversation to go further.
Carlito looked at Alphonse for more. That was all Alphonse needed.
“Ramon, he’s got his eyes on Maria.”
“THAT Maria?” asked Carlito, pointing across the street.
“Ramon,” said Carlito seriously, “she’s gonna be my girl.”
Ramon’s shoulders dropped and his eyes rolled. He really didn’t want to go down this road.
“She’s nobody’s girl, Carlito, least of all you,” he said bravely, eliciting a chorus of “Oooh’s” from the men in the yard. “If she wanted you, she could have invited you across the street, into her house.”
“What makes you think she hasn’t?” Carlito challenged with a smile, popping another friend on the chest, to a round of laughter.
The men fell silent for a moment, and then Ramon looked sideways at Carlito and said, “because you have no idea what her room looks like.”
You could have heard the grass growing. Everything stopped.
Carlito’s toes started tapping, he licked his lips and finally he said, to no one in particular, “She’s got a pink room, with pictures of her Mama and Papa on the walls, a tall dresser at the end of the bed, she puts her favorite stuffed animal, a zebra, on the pillow. There. Satisfied?”
Another round of muttering from the crowd.
“Go see for yourself,” challenged Carlito. “You never been there!”
“If you’re wrong,” said Alphonse, in Ramon’s defense, “we all know you are lying.”
“Shut up Alphonse,” said Ramon. “It’s stupid.”
“No, go ahead and see!” said Carlito, smiling like a champion.
“Yes, go!” said Alphonse with a wink. All the other men joined in. There was talk of a bet but the blood was rushing into Ramon’s head and he couldn’t hear it.
Ramon bit his lip. He realized he had made a stupid mistake, challenging Carlito like that. He didn’t know why he said it. But now he had to save face.
He pulled his unbuttoned shirt around and buttoned it up, hitched up his pants and checked his boots. As he walked toward the street, the prodding of the men behind him, he combed his hair through his fingers. He realized he must look like a mess, and he really didn’t want his first meeting with Maria to be like this.
He crossed the dusty street and into the tiny yard of el hogar de Maria. It was a little cottage, maybe it had three rooms in it.
“Nobody in that house could have a room of their own,” Ramon said, smiling to himself.
The garage was set back from the house and a little chain link fence held a couple of Chihuahuas in the yard. He closed the gate behind him, not looking back at the men, and proceded up the narrow concrete path to the weathered wooden steps. Pulling back the creaking screen door, he knocked gently on the front door and then stepped back, hands hanging awkwardly, and stared at the doorknob. He suddenly realized he had no idea what to say.
Soft footsteps came from the back of the house to the front, and the door swung open. The tiny old figure of Maria’s tía abuela stood in the doorway. She used to work in the fields, too, but her arthritis made it impossible to keep up. So she tended to los hijos and helped in the la cocina. She had bright white hair and wore a dark blue dress. She smiled a toothless smile at him.
“Ramon!” she said pleasantly, “Qué te trae por aquí? You’re such a fine young man now!”
She sized him up from head to toe, and back again, bringing a wide smile to Ramon’s face.
“Hola tía,” replied Ramon. “Is Maria here today? I was just hanging with my friends and, um, thought I might say hello.”
The aunt looked around Ramon to see the men standing in the other yard, looking back at them.
“You’re not going to bring her over there, are you?” asked the aunt cautiously.
Ramon looked back and waved the men away.
“No tía, I really just wanted to say hello.”
“That’s good,” said the aunt, smiling brightly. “There’s not a good boy in that bunch. Carlito, he’s the worst. He tries his best to be cock-of-the-walk but he comes off looking like a fool every time.”
Ramon smiled again.
“Have a seat, joven,” said the aunt, “I will go get her. She’s out back hanging laundry to dry.”
Ramon looked around the quaint living room. It was small and crowded with couches and chairs. There was an old TV in one corner and many pictures on the walls. Jesus and Mary, family photos, and candles on the hearth. Like every other house in the neighborhood. He realized that, if he had asked Carlito what the front room looked like, he could probably have described anybody’s house and been right.
The sound of the back porch door swinging open alerted Ramon that Maria was coming in. There was no other sound. Her footsteps were always silent, but again he caught that flowery scent on the incoming air, and he knew she would round the corner in a second. He stood to meet her.
“Ramon,” said Maria, smiling. “How nice to see you!”
“Good to see you too, Maria,” said Ramon. His lips trembled slightly as he fumbled for something to say.
“Would you like something to drink, mi amigo?” asked Maria. Ramon relaxed slightly, nodded his head, and followed her at a distance into the kitchen.
“Water, soda?” asked Maria over her shoulder.
“Water, si,” said Ramon.
“What brings you here?” asked Maria abruptly, “is everything ok?” She filled a glass from the water jug and handed it to Ramon.
“Oh yes, everything is fine,” said Ramon. “Actually I – “
“I just wanted to drop by and see you. I was working with Carlito on his car and I realized you live here, so I thought I would say hello.”
“Thank you,” said Maria coyly. “Nobody ever does that.”
“Really?” asked Ramon, sitting up in his seat. “But I would have thought Carlito or a dozen other guys – I mean, you are so beautiful, everyone loves you.”
Maria blushed noticeably.
“Oh my God,” she said, her eyes welling up, “That is such a sweet thing to say, thank you.”
She covered her mouth with her hand. Her perfect brown fingers were long and dimpled and topped by plastic nails in a zebra design.
“Nobody comes here, really. I didn’t grow up here so I don’t really know anybody outside of mi familia. I didn’t make many friends in the high school, they already knew each other. It’s just my family and the work crew, that’s my whole world now,” she said, looking pleadingly at him. He realized that despite her natural beauty, she felt all alone.
“But Carlito and everyone –“
“I don’t talk to them,” she interrupted. “Papa said they causan problemas. We don’t even let them come in our yard. Do you hang out with them?”
“Oh, only when he asks us to come over,” said Ramon. “He got a new truck so we came to look at it.”
“That old thing!?” said Maria, laughing. They rose to look through the family room window. Ramon laughed too.
“I think it’s been rolled a few times,” he offered.
They both laughed. He felt wonderful. She turned to look at him and saw the depth in his eyes. She turned away, biting her lip.
“How long have you worked in the fields?” she asked, inviting him to sit down again.
“Oh, since I was 16,” he said. “You know back in the day my parents worked out there with they were 11 or 12. But they don’t do that anymore.”
“I know,” said Maria. “Mama would have had me out there years ago if she could.” There was the slightest edge in her voice, like the idea was upsetting.
“It’s good work,” he said, “and this is a nice place. “Quiet, but nice.”
“It feels like the middle of nowhere,” said Maria.
“It kind of is,” said Ramon, looking down. “But there are lots of nice cities nearby. Monterey, Salinas, Santa Cruz, San Francisco…”
“When was the last time you were in San Francisco?” asked Maria, her eyes widening.
“Oh, my Papa and me went there oh, four, five months ago. To get a passport.”
“You could have gone to San Jose,” said Maria.
“Yeah, I know,” said Ramon. “But he doesn’t.”
They both laughed again.
“I would like to go there sometime,” said Maria.
“I would love to take you!” offered Ramon. They smiled at each other.
It was la mirada again.
“Oh my,” said Ramon.
“You gave me that look the other day, in the field.”
She smiled, her lips trembling ever so slightly.
“It went directamente a mi corazón,” he said, completely unaware of how that ever came out of his mouth, but grateful that he said it, all the same.
They spent the next hour talking like that, until the din across the street grew louder. Carlito had switched the radio to a hip-hop station from Monterey and the men were drinking in the yard. Ramon realized they were trying to call him out of the house.
“I guess I should go,” said Ramon, standing. Maria stood too.
“Thank you for coming over,” she said quietly. She looked up at him with her big doe eyes. He was dying to kiss her but knew it wasn’t the right time.
“You’re welcome,” he said, slipping sideways. They brushed hands and their fingers met, holding each other. He stopped to take in the warmth of her soft hands and then, without looking back, let go.
“I guess I will see you in the morning,” said Ramon.
“I will be looking for you,” said Maria with a smile.
“I always look for you. You are the most beautiful girl I have ever met. And everyone adores you.”
Maria smiled and her eyes sparkled.
“Thank you,” she whispered, holding his hand again as he opened the door and stepped into the yard.
“Hijole!” cried the men and he crossed the street. The sun was noticeably lower, casting his shadow well down the road.
“Ramon, what the hell?” yelled Alphonse. “We thought they killed you and buried you in the back yard.” He laughed as Ramon neared and slapped him on the shoulder.
“So?” asked one of the other men. “What’s in there?”
“It’s a nice house,” said Ramon. “Just like everyone else’s.”
“Yeah but the room,” said Alphonse. “Does it look like Carlito said?”
There was a long silence. Ramon thought hard about what he should say. And then finally he replied.
“Ni tengo idea.”
“What? You mean you were in there for like, all day, and you never looked at her room?”
“Why would I?” he shot back. “We were just talking.”
He stole a glance at Carlito and caught a variety of reactions on the man’s face, from relief to anger.
He knew, as Carlito did, that the only way Carlito could know what was in Maria’s house was if he went inside uninvited. But Ramon wasn’t going to say that.
The men were getting pretty drunk by now and Carlito began testing Ramon, as if trying to find out what he knew. Ramon wanted none of it, so after a while he took Alphonse by the arm and slipped down the road unnoticed. They got into Alphonse’s little car and drove away.
Ramon could barely sleep that night. He lay there in bed realizing that he had just told the woman of his dreams how he felt about her, and she accepted that. He was completely amazed. His life would change, from here on out. They would be friends, and then lovers, yes, they would get married at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove and maybe stay in one of those elegant bed-and-breakfast houses, like the House of Seven Gables, and then come back and have children and live on el rancho de sus sueños.
Maria, el corazón del valle, would be his wife. He could not believe his good fortune. He slipped out of bed, got on his knees and gave his thanks to God.
Ramon was up at 3am and dressed a few minutes later. Too early. The clock ticked loudly in the kitchen as he sat there, drinking coffee and eating a piece of toast, tracing her face in his memory, imagining the warmth of her embrace. Finally, he walked out to the dark, foggy street and got on the bus, saving the seat beside him for Maria.
Stop after stop, more workers got onto the bus. Everyone was quiet as usual. He imagined they could hear his heart pounding in anticipation of seeing her again. The shyness was gone, replaced with love.
The bus rumbled through the old town and over the hill, toward the last street, where Maria lives.
There was an earie red glow in the fog, shining, blinking. A turn signal maybe, or a faulty brake light.
As they got closer the light grew brighter, and then separated in to several lights, some red, some white, some blue, all flashing.
There must have been an accident.
An officer with a flashlight waved the bus to a stop. The driver opened the door.
“Buenos dias,” said the officer. “There has been an accident. A pickup truck missed the turn into this street and rolled. It hit a group of women standing there. Were you coming to pick them up?”
Suddenly the bus was filled with cries and voices, everyone instantly knew what had happened.
“Are they okay?” asked the driver and passengers.
“The driver was taken away before I got here,” said the officer quietly. “An old lady has a broken hip, another has broken legs and a head injury. A younger woman is dead.”
The bus erupted in cries and screams. Even the men were crying.
“Maybe you should move along,” said the officer.
The bus rumbled to a start and passed slowly by the misty scene. Floodlights from the ambulance and police cruisers illuminated the white blanket that covered Maria’s body. Carlito’s truck lay upside down in the field beyond.
Ramon held his head in his hands, tears streaming down his face. His entire body shook, he was crying so hard. Alphonse just looked at him and cried too. There was nothing he could say.
It was hard to work that day, but everyone got off the bus and went to it. By 10 am the foreman learned what had happened and sent everyone home.
But they didn’t go home.
As if prompted by some silent group conscience, the bus driver pulled over at una huerto de flores. Everyone got out and picked a few choice flowers, and then quietly filed back in.
They drove to Maria’s street and stopped. Crying silently and holding each other for comfort, the field hands got out again and began building a shrine to Maria, the heart of the valley.
And then they prayed.
The news reached other local farm workers by radio. Hundreds of them came that day, from Castroville, Watsonville, Prunedale, San Juan Bautista, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel Valley, even Salinas, King City and beyond.
They came that day, and the next day, and then next. They held a mass on Sunday.
She died in the summer of 1997.
Ramon still visits the corner, where a smaller shrine is kept fresh by farm workers from around the area.
No one ever saw Carlito again. His family won’t say where he is. But Ramon doesn’t care.
He prefers to hold on to the memory of being in love with Maria, el corazón del valle.