Chris stepped down onto the platform, the air parched and seared his skin, sweat dried before it had time to roll down his face. Yuma is not a forgiving town, its geographical location known for its being inhospitable to the average American. Not that any Mexican or Mexican American fared any better. Here the climate made no distinctions among individuals. A suitcase made of little more than laminated cardboard and cloth held what few personal items he owned. Such was the physical history on our subject. But as light holds promise, so too, does our young man. For young men always hold promise until such time as all goodwill is forsaken. The young man took a breath and started on his way to the bus counter inside. Chris called to mind the need to call his uncle and let him know when the bus would arrive in Tacna. After a few minutes walk he reached to ticket counter. “Let me have a ticket to Tacna, please.”
“Round trip or one way?” came the voice on the man behind the counter.
“One way.” Chris’s voice sounded non committal, almost passive. “What time does the next bus leave?”
“Two thirty. You should get to Tacna about four this afternoon. You got a job there by any chance?”
Chris ignored the question and paid for the ticket. Then he went to the bench by the bus gate to wait. It won’t be long now. Better call Uncle John as he noticed the telephone in the nook by the exit. Glad I don’t have to walk far as he approached the phone, put in the quarters, and dialed the number. After the fifth ring he heard the receiver being picked up. A woman’s voice, a bit on the old side, answered.
“Hello.” Was all he heard. He felt slightly unnerved,”Aunt Martha, is that you?” A woman responded, “Chris, is this Chris? Your uncle was expecting your call earlier today. Where are you?”
“Aunt Martha, I’m here in Yuma at the station. The train had problems and they had to attach a new engine. Would you tell Uncle John I’ll be in Tacna at four this afternoon?”
The ride to Tacna was dull, boring, uncomfortable. The seats were confining and the landscape will filled with either empty cheap housing and RV parks for the snow birds or barren dessert with the occasional irrigation track among the ruins of bus stops decades older than the interstate. Half lost in thought Chris was thinking as the bus rolled on, this is a lazy land, nothing to see or do and it’d be too hot anyway. Can’t be any worse than juvie, maybe better. I don’t know. Can’t say as I care, really. He looked at his watch. Can’t remember if this place is in the same time zone. I swear, this state is at least fifty years in the past. The bus started to slow and the driver announced “Tacna”. Chris sat up in his seat expecting something but didn’t know what. Why is the bus stopping, there is no traffic. Now he’s making a left turn. guess we’re going into ‘town’. The voice in his head was tired. Tired of traveling, tired of waiting, just tired.Now the driver made another turn and stopped the vehicle in front of the post office. Chris read the sign with a sigh of tired resignation. Great, population 400. Yeah, and I bet it’s all old people. He picked up his suitcase and walked down the aisle to the door. “Have a good day.” was the sound that came from the driver. Startled, Chris turned around and just nodded. Then he stepped off the bus and started to look around. The door closed behind him and he heard the release of the air brakes as the bus started to pull away from the curb. A horn sounded from the side parking lot and attracted his attention. In a moment a tall heavy set man got out of the lone pickup and started to walk towards Chris. Must be Uncle John he thought.
“Howdy Chris, you’re late. What happened?” Uncle John’s voice was direct and forceful but not loud. He had a voice that was use command and respect.
Are you kidding me? Chris thought he was being targeted. Why’s he jumping on me for? Suddenly the answer jumped up like a scared jackrabbit,”The engine broke down on the way and they had to get another one. Don’t go blaming me for that.”
“Throw your bag in the bed and get in, I’m behind schedule.” was all Uncle John said as he and the boy started to the truck. No sooner than Chris had placed himself in the seat and shut the door then the truck started and Uncle John quickly backed it up and sped out of the parking lot slinging a bit of gravel. The irrigated fields went by counting the minutes of silence as the truck cruised down the county hardtop. for chris the silence had almost become comfortable. “Chris, I didn’t ask you for an excuse. I asked what happened. Let’s get one thing straight between you and me and Aunt Martha. We aren’t here to blame you for anything. Your aunt and I require two things from you. The first is that level with us, be truthful. Lies don’t build trust and respect in a man or woman. The second is that you take responsibility for yourself. That means when work needs doing, you do it whether we ask you or not. This is a hard land. You can’t afford to lay around and let it kill you. What you make of yourself is how the people around here will treat you. Do you understand me?”
Chris’s mind was alive with thought he was being disrespected, Wow, what’s this old man trying to shine on me. He must think I’m an idiot. Who is he to tell me how to live my life? Finally he gave a simple “Yeah, ok” in a voice that sounded bored and almost disrespectful.
Uncle John hit the brakes real hard, almost throwing Chris into the windshield. The big man place his right arm on the back of the seat and turned his body and head to fully face the boy. Now his voice boomed out. “Boy, your daddy skedaddled and left your mother when you were six. She had a hard life doing right by you and it cost her. Dying of cancer ain’t a whole lot of joy. Particularly knowing that you were in juvenile hall because you didn’t want to grow up. Now you hear me real good. I aim to do right by my sister. That’s the only reason you’re in this state and out here. I ain’t shading the truth when I say this land can kill you. Now maybe you can lit out for Yuma or Tuscon and any part of California you think you can make in a couple of days. But you’re soft, boy. You don’t have the skills you need to survive into your twenties. I can teach you a lot of skills, ones that will see you make something of yourself. And I don’t mean for me or your mother. I mean for yourself. But understand me real good, boy. I won’t take attitude off you. And you don’t want me all over you like shit on a stick.” He paused for a few more minutes then turned back to face the steering wheel. “We’ve got another half hour to go to the next job. I gave my word that the job would be done before night fall, so you have plenty of time to think about what I said.” With that Uncle John put the truck in gear and sped on down the road.
Chris was deep in though as Uncle John let the truck glide into the driveway and turned off the engine. “You hungry? Your aunt’s been keeping dinner warm of the stove. I usually wash up out here before I go in. Sort of an old habit I just can’t break.” The two figures stood at the large wash basin soaping up their hands and arms and faces. Each poured one of the two pitchers of water over the soapy areas and then over their heads. Chris thought the water feels good, just cool enough to take the sting of sun and dirt out of my skin. Air is still hot yet, wonder if it ever cools down at night. Uncle John interrupted his concentration. “Come on Chris, supper’s waiting.” Then he went through the door and stood by the table. “I hope we’re not too late Marth. I know you were inconvenienced.”
“John, it’s no bother at all.” Her look of admiration was evident to Chris. “Thank you, Chris, for helping John. I can tell he’s pleased.” This friendly acknowledgement caught him by surprise. My god, he thought to himself, no one’s ever said that to me before. Then he stammered a reply, “Uncle John did all the work, I just helped a little.”
“You did good, Chris. I would have been out there another hour without your help. We’ll go out tomorrow, I’ve got a couple of jobs lined up.” And with that, Aunt Martha put supper on the table and grace was said. As Chris lay in bed his mind gave way to the possibilities of living here. I’ll give it a chance, see what comes. Still, I rather be in LA. This place looks desolate, man, not ever a backwater town. I wonder if there are any girls here? Probably real hicks with cow licks. He chuckled at that thought. Sleep crept in soon enough and eased the tiredness of body and mind.
He was rudely awaken the next morning by Uncle John. The door opened and his uncle uttered, “Time to get up, we’re burning daylight.” Burning daylight? Wasn’t than in a John Wayne movie? Burning day light? What the hell? as the sleep cleared out of his head. He pulled back the curtains, the first light of day was upon the sky. His aunt came in to advise him, “Dear, I washed you clothes last night so you’d have something clean to wear. Breakfast’s on the table. Better hurry, John tells me it’s going to be a busy day.” As she closed the door Chris pulled back the covers and sat up. Sure enough, clean clothes were on the chair. So he pulled on his clothes and went into the kitchen. John was sitting at the table drinking black coffee and spearing a piece of thick slab bacon with his fork. “How many eggs do you want, Dear?” Aunt martha was poised with one in her hand ready to crack the shell and slip the raw egg into the skillet. “I usually do them easy over but if you want them different…” her voice trailed off. “Uh, sure, easy over’s good. Uh, two thank you.” was his reply as he sat down. Uncle John reached for the pot, “Want some coffee? we have mild if you’d rather…” “Sure, coffee’s fine. I take it black, please.” Chris was amazed how polite he was being. Maybe they had more charm than he thought.
For several weeks this routine continued. His uncle was teaching him simple repairs and would leave him unsupervised at times. The effect on Chris was quite visible. He went from a hostile young teen to a young man more sure of his capabilities. By the end of the fourth week the transformation was almost complete.It is said that to change one’s habits requires a minimum of three weeks. The same is true of living in a new place, after three weeks it starts to feel like “home”. And Chris was starting to feel at home and comfortable with the new changes in his life. But for ever three steps forward one must be prepared for that one step back, expect it in due course.
September was upon him and the need to complete his basic education. Rather than send their school age children sixty miles to the nearest public school the local families had established a coop of home schooling. Several of the the men and women were retired teachers and ready to donate a few hours each week to the education of the young. At any one time there were no more than sixty to seventy primary and secondary school students. Thus student to teacher ratios were often single digit. Chris had not graduated from high school. In fact, he was way behind due to the precarious family situation and run ins with police. So Uncle John informed him that school would begin next Monday. “Don’t worry about going. I sometimes come and teach welding and machine repair to the boys and a couple of girls who want to learn. Just remember, there are no secrets in this community. Everyone knows why you are hear and a little of your background with the police. But they don’t know all the details and that is as it should be. So tell them as little as you can. Just take it slow and after a while they’ll accept you. You got to build trust with them, right?”
“But Uncle John, what do I need with high school? You’re teaching me how to make a living, aren’t you?”
“Because it’s a big world out there and you need to know more about it. Math and science and reading and writing. These are the tools you always have with you. No one can borrow them and no one can steal or take them from you. You’ll see. For me the work slows down as winter closed in. That’s when I read and maybe write in my journal. You need something like that.”
Well, the subject was closed as far as Uncle John was concerned and Chris knew it. So he went to school dutifully and tried to fit into the school and social scene. Aunt Martha was often at the school with a few of the other mothers. It was agreed that she was one of the best cooks in the town and taught the girls and a few of the boys how to survive on bare necessities. For those who wished more accomplishment in the art of cuisine. Lunch was a combined effort of parents and students. One learns well the art of patience when a first grader is given the task of placing peanut butter on one slice of bread and a second grader the task of placing the jelly. Some of the fathers came by each week to spend a leisurely lunch with their children or teach on the topic of growing crops or how to build irrigations ditches or some other subject like accounting. Fact was, Chris and the other boys were getting courses in practical education they could never have achieved in a regular public school.
Christmas in small communities can be a very joyous time of year. The lack of commercialization and absence of heavy vehicle traffic patterns keep the peace and tranquility, if not the spirit, of the holiday. But the ghost of Christmas Past visited Chris two days before school let out. As Uncle John had point out several times the adults in the town knew about problems Chris had with the police but were not aware of the particulars. He also warned that a few of the teenagers knew that same information. So it came as no surprise that one of those teens, an older boy, managed to search the internet and find a couple of newspaper articles about the particulars of that involvement. For the first time Chris was confronted with his past and was unprepared. The teen’s name was Will Graves and regarded as something of a troublemaker. “Hey Chris, look what I found! You’re a jail bird, a thief. You’ve spent time in juvenile prison.” The words immediately froze Chris in his seat and filled him with fear. Will continued, “Look everybody, I have copies, pass them around. We got us a thief and jail bird in our school. He’s a gang member. Read it!”
Before he could think words of protest leaped out of his mouth, “No, that’s not me. It’s a mistake. You’re wrong…” His voice trailed off as he started to remember Uncle John’s admonitions.
Will started in again, “Liar, your picture was in the paper. Liar, liar, we got you dead to rights. You’re just a filthy thief and a liar.”
Those words landed with heavy blows against his psyche. All Chris could think to do was run, run out of the room, out of the school. Just run, run as far as he could. Down the road, under the interstate, past the auto repair shop, into the dessert. The chill air cooled his burning cheeks as he traveled several miles toward the Mohawk mountains. Finally he stopped and sat down, leaned back on a boulder and held his face to the sky. Over and over he kept asking himself, why. I was happy here. Why did it have to end now? Where will I go, what will I do? Night fell and the air turned frigid. Chris had no coat and felt chilled to the bone as the cold imposed a strong numbing sleep upon his brain.
One of the mothers called Aunt Martha, “Is it true? Did you nephew spend time in jail? How come you didn’t tell us he was a thief? Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“Hold on Judy. Calm down. Now tell me what has happened.” Aunt Martha’s inner strength was her coolness under pressure. She had a way of exerting calm in her presence. Judy related part of the story. “I’ll be down directly, Judy. Wait for me.” Then she put on her coat and hat, opened to door and left for a ten minute walk. The incident weighted heavily on her mind. I hope Chris didn’t try to lie his way out of it. I’ll see what I can do.
When she entered the small school the three teachers and four of the mothers confronted her. Generally the comments ran on about how could she and her husband do this to them and isn’t the boy dangerous and how they would have to start locking their doors at night. But Aunt Martha’s unflinching warm smile and calming influence won out even when Will poked a copy of the newspaper story to her face. “I’ve seen it dear, I know all about it.” As if to further make her point, she tore up the papers and let them drop to the floor. “Will, did you enjoy hurting Chris? Wouldn’t kindness be a better way? As my John always says, ‘No matter what you think of a man, never needlessly make him your enemy.’ Do you think that would be a wiser course of action?” Will, gently chastised, retreated from the circle of women and sought his seat. Aunt Martha continued,”Where is Chris now?”
One of the mothers said he has bolted out the door and was running towards the Interstate. Aunt Martha looked around and saw the coat on one of the pegs. “Oh my, he didn’t take his coat. John won;t be home for another hour or so. Well, I better go wait for him.” As if to reassure them before she left she added. “Now that you know more of my nephew’s past, please judge him by the progress he’s made since. His life wasn’t easy.”
Uncle John drove up in that easy way of his and quickly washed up. Martha had filled the basin with hot water only minutes before and the warmth felt good on his hands and face. Martha’s face told him something was wrong. “Chris was confronted with his past in school today. Will Graves found the newspaper articles online. Now Chris has run off. No one knows where.” Uncle John thought for a moment then dais, “I’ll call the garage, maybe they saw him.” Yes, Don Woods remembered seeing the boy running. “He was jogging, really. Had his head down most of the time. I thought is a little odd, myself. He in any trouble?” “No, no trouble, just doesn’t know what to do.” Uncle John left it at that. The word would get around soon enough. No, he had to find the boy. It was dark now, and cold, suppose to hit freezing tonight, maybe lower. “Martha, get me a couple of blankets and I’ll get a bottle of brandy out of the cupboard.
Uncle John spent the better part of the night looking for Chris. That is often the way with lost sheep. The sky was getting light when he stumbled upon the boy, the body tightly curled and looking like one of the boulders. He picked Chris up and bundled the boy in the blankets. Then as he held the boy in his arms walked the three miles back to the truck. He placed Chris gently onto the seat then went round to the driver’s side and started the engine, mildly racing it to build up the heat and let if flood into the cab. Then he took a shot glass and filled it with brandy, held it to the boy’s lips and got some of it into the boy’s mouth. His skin had that bluish tone from the long night’s exposure to cold. Chris started to stir. “Chris, take a shot, you need the shock of alcohol to get your blood going. Come on, now. Drink it. Good, okay now, one more, just one more.” The cab was beginning to feel warm, the heater fan was on high, and the boy’s skin was losing its bluishness, turning more pale white. Uncle John put the cap on the bottle and eased the truck into gear. I’ll phone the doc when I get Chris to bed. Have him come over and check him out.
Chris was well enough a few days later to get out of bed and into his clothes. Aunt Martha was a very good nurse. As she told Chris, that is how she met John. “I’ll tell you that story another time, when you’ve got a sweetheart of your own. John will be home in an hour and I’ll have supper on the table. We’ve missed having you at the table.” As if by some mysterious communication John was home to that very hour. Supper was laid and they all sat and ate the leftover roast beef. Uncle John didn’t like turkey, said it slowed him down, made him feel sleepy. About half way through the meal Uncle John spoke directly to Chris. “Well, son. You learned a lesson the hard way. Running away from your problems damn near killed you. It’s always better to face a problem directly. Be honest with about it. Many years ago when I was a young man, a little old than you, I faced that situation. And like you I faltered. I tried to lie my way out of it, pretended it didn’t exist. I came up shot in life and my running away almost killed me. I had to go back and face the people I had lied to, had let down, had failed in their trust. To me, I would rather have died that go hat in hand and beg their forgiveness. Humbleness comes when you overcome the need for false pride. Chris, that’s where you are now. You’ve got to the make the decision. Don’t do it for me or Martha. You got to do it for yourself. I’m going to suggest to you that you and I go round to groups of the families here and you make amends. You apologize for lying and betraying their trust. You ask for their forgiveness. You tell them why you ran. There’s no shame in honesty. And by the way, Mr Graves dealt with Will. Perhaps a little too harshly for my sense of justice. But son, Will’s not your enemy. Don’t treat him like one. He, like you, has his faults. You let me know tomorrow what your decision is.” Then turning to Martha, “I’m ready for some pie.”
The next evening at supper Chris revealed his decision. “I’m scared, Uncle John. I’m really scared of what they think, what they might say. I’ll try but I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Chris, it takes no courage to tell a lie, never did. But it’s truth that gives us the courage to say what is true. You’ve taken a shot of courage to get this far. Martha and I will be with you. We’ll stand behind you. And when you’re ready to speak, just take another shot of courage.”