SECOND CHANCE

By Patty Somlo

 

The first truck parked on the shoulder of Highway 17 was from the local NBC affiliate in San Francisco. The cameraman wore faded jeans and a loose blue tee-shirt that needed ironing. The reporter, who had on a dark blue jacket, gray slacks, a pressed white shirt and a diagonally striped blue and gold tie, looked as if he’d been sealed in plastic, to keep his hair from flying around.

Ed Harris was the reporter’s name and he wanted this story to get noticed. The last two years, he’d been inching up, to anchor the six and eleven o’clock weekend broadcasts. One good national story might secure him an offer from New York.

He would start with a stand-up in front of the empty fields. He’d show the luscious red strawberries that were going to rot. The intro was scribbled in a small spiral-bound notebook he carried in his jacket pocket. He was trying to memorize it now.

“It’s strawberry season and the fruit is ripe here outside of Watsonville at the Henderson Farm. This year, though, the strawberries might not reach your local market.”

He’d do the stand-up and then head over to the detention center. Do the next part out front.

“Workers normally in the fields picking strawberries are here instead.”

The camera would pan over and zoom in on the name of the detention center.

“They were arrested as part of a massive roundup of illegal aliens today.”

Harris would have an interview with the local immigration official edited in next, claiming the federal government was just enforcing the law. He’d show the weeping mothers next, and lastly, the kids in the school cafeteria. The camera would move in for a close-up of the little girls and boys sipping milk through straws from small red and white waxed cardboard containers.

 

Joe Gonzales paced from the corner of First and Main, where the old Hibernia Bank used to be, past a coffee shop and a taqueria, two Mexican restaurants and one Chinese, beyond the State Farm office and the old Wade furniture store, up to the corner of Third Street. He debated whether to cross. He raised his right hand to his mouth, the index finger and thumb pressing an imaginary cigarette, inhaled deeply and slowly let his breath out.

Main Street was deserted as he headed in the direction of Miriam’s salon. He passed Frank’s Bakery and two empty storefronts. In the weeks and months following the divorce, he’d come here around eight o’clock, when he knew Miriam would be closing the salon. Most nights, he watched her step outside and lock the door. He’d keep watching, as she walked to her car and he heard the engine start up.

It made no sense. Even now, he couldn’t explain to himself what he’d wanted.

“Nothing,” he muttered, as he stopped walking and stared at the closed salon door.

While he stood there, he thought about what had gone wrong. Weeks after the divorce, he might have said, “Everything.”  Miriam had a way of picking on him, as if she were poking those blood-red chiseled fingernails over and over again into his groin. They fought, but he never hit her. Days passed when they didn’t talk. He’d go out, have a few beers, eat dinner downtown. Just so he didn’t have to be around.

Now, two years into a life he’d mostly spent alone, he couldn’t figure out what he’d been so angry about.

 

Alejandro Murghia Lopez walked along the side of the road, his worn, long-past-white tennis shoes stirring up dust. He knew it was his fault that the farmworkers had gotten locked up. The agents couldn’t touch Alejandro, because he had a green card now, but that didn’t make the man, who at twenty-eight still looked like a boy, feel right.

He’d made the call to the union office right after the agents arrived.

“Everyone,” Alejandro told his supervisor. “Fifty. Sixty maybe.”  He couldn’t be sure of the exact count.

He kicked the dust with the toe of his right shoe. The union had lawyers filing papers but most of the workers would be sent back to Mexico anyhow.

Greg at the office tried to reassure him.

“This is part of the struggle,” Greg said.

Alejandro held back from reminding Greg that the people struggling were the ones they were trying to help.

 

Miriam stepped out the door.

“What the hell,” Gonzales said.

He was dressed in civilian clothes – straight-legged jeans, as blue as if they were still hanging on the rack, and a light blue, short-sleeved knit shirt that showed off the caramel skin on his arms. His hair was cut short. Lately, he’d taken to running some goop through, to make the spiky strands in front stand up. His hairdresser Gail assured him that the sticky hair made him look younger.

Gonzales kept the large dark brown eyes that Miriam had fallen in love with on his ex-wife. He had a way of staring that made a woman feel listened to and understood.             “Hello, Miriam,” he said quietly when he walked up.

“Oh, Joe. You scared me.”

“Sorry. I was across the street and saw you coming out. Thought I’d say hi, see how you’ve been.”

“Fine. How about you, Joe?”

Gonzales stared at his ex-wife. He wasn’t sure what she’d done – cut her hair, curled it, maybe lost a few pounds – but she looked fine.

“I’m all right. Not so good today, though. Dealing with a big raid out at Henderson’s farm. Those S.O.B. Feds went in and cleaned out the place. Didn’t even bother to tip me off.”

“Really?’ Miriam asked. “Sorry to hear that.”

She pulled her large black nylon bag up onto her shoulder. Her gaze swept across the street to the taquieria and down the block, beyond the crafts store to the antique mall. It reminded him of when he used to talk to her about work, and she’d leave the living room, when he was in the middle of a thought.

“Just thought I’d say hi. Don’t want to keep you,” Gonzales said.

 

The story of the Watsonville raid was all over the news. No one called Gonzales, who’d been chief of the Watsonville Police force for the past three years, to hear his side. He sat in the blue La-Z-boy in front of the tv, watching the town’s dirty predicament paraded for the whole country to see. The Feds acted like they owned this town. He had an urge to throw a slice of the leftover pepperoni pizza he was having for dinner at the tv.

The next day Gonzales headed over to the detention facility. As soon as he walked in the door, Father Thomas smiled and waved his arm.

“Nice to see a familiar face,” Father Thomas said, after he’d rushed across the room to stand across from Gonzales. The priest said mass every Sunday at St. Peter’s on the edge of town and a good deal of his congregation had gotten locked up.

“Good news. I think we’ve managed to get the mothers released.”

Gonzales let the news sink in, feeling impotent and angry again.

“What about the men?” Gonzales asked.

Father Thomas shook his head.

“All deported. The women will stay for now, awaiting their hearings, but they won’t be allowed to work. It’s a terrible situation. At least the kids won’t be abandoned.”

Gonzales’ hands rested outside the pockets of his pants, his elbows poking out. The place filled up with more brown-skinned women, most of whom looked about to cry.

“We’ll need to raise money for the families,” Father Thomas said, breaking into the police chief’s thoughts.

Gonzales slid his right hand into his pocket. He waited for Father Thomas to extend his hand before palming a couple of twenties, then watched the priest nod and count the money out.

 

At first, Alejandro hadn’t been sure.

“I don’t know,” he said to Dan at the union office. Dan was more than twice his age and height, and chain-smoked while he talked.

“What don’t you know, Alejandro?”

Dan spoke to Alejandro in Spanish, though his accent gave away New York roots.

“You don’t know if these people are being exploited? Of course, you know that.”

Dan was sitting behind an old oak desk, in front of a poster with a large black fist attached to a muscled arm, and the question on top, “WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?”

“Alejandro, if this was going to be easy, it would already be done. That’s why we call this the struggle.

“You can do this, Alejandro. You feel their pain. You are one of them. Now that you have a green card, they can’t throw you out.”

“I worry that the people will be hurt,” Alejandro said. “They only come here to work, to feed their children.”

“But why should they be paid so little?” Dan asked. He raised his right hand and slapped it against the desk. “Just because they’re poor, should they be exploited?”

When he said the word exploited, he spit the syllables out.

The following week, Dan taught Alejandro his spiel and listened to Alejandro try and talk him into joining the union. As Alejandro kicked up dust along the road now, the spiel ran through his mind. He was starting to feel that life in America came down to practicing and reciting lines. A gnawing emptiness rose from his belly, wide and long as the empty strawberry fields, without any of the workers in their worn straw hats to shade them from the sun and red and blue handkerchiefs tied around their necks and untied to wipe sweat off their foreheads.

At that moment, Chief Joe Gonzales drove up. He saw the young Mexican man walking along the highway, right before he stopped.

Gonzales pulled the SUV onto the shoulder too fast. A cloud of dust flew up. How, he asked himself, had this one young guy escaped the raid? Maybe he was a government snitch, who alerted the Feds that a field of illegals was waiting to be plucked.

The police chief hopped out of the car and bounded across the highway.

“You got some ID there?” he asked the young man in Spanish.

Alejandro nodded, then dug his fingers into the back pocket of his jeans. Gonzales noted that the jeans were dark navy blue and rolled into four-inch cuffs. Alejandro picked through a black, fake leather wallet, pulled out a driver’s license and green card, and handed them over to the police officer.

Gonzales studied the documents. The green card was new. That made Gonzales even more suspicious.

“What are you doing out here?” Gonzales asked, still holding onto the documents.

“I am walking, sir,” Alejandro said.

“Walking. Why are you walking here? Where are you going?”

Alejandro shook his head.

“The people were working here. I just wanted to see.”

“You have anything to do with this?” Gonzales kept his eyes fixed on Alejandro.

Alejandro looked away from the police chief and sighed.

“I think it was my fault.”

Gonzales felt the anger simmering in his belly. He silently reminded himself to stay calm.

 

For reasons only he could understand, Alejandro started the story way back in his little village of Teptapa. Known to be an impatient man, Gonzales kept his trap shut. A perpetrator would eventually confess, Gonzales had learned, if he went on long enough. Alejandro said it never occurred to him that his father and mother, sisters, brothers and cousins, aunts and uncles, and pretty much all the people of Teptapa were poor.

“You see,” he said, with his eyes closed, as if getting ready to pray. “We had so much.”

He stopped, remembering what life had been like then.

“At night,” he went on, “the sky was full of stars. The air smelled sweet and there was the sound of crickets.”

Alejandro explained that things changed. He was older by then, with a wife and baby on the way. The farmers in Teptapa could no longer grow enough to feed their families and sell a little extra to buy what they couldn’t raise. Prices for their crops were so low, it wasn’t worth bothering to plant. The weather grew funny, with too much rain, followed by long dry spells lasting weeks or months. Men in Teptapa started to go away, first to the capital, Mexico City, and, later, to the United States.

Gonzales wondered if the little guy was trying to put something over on him. He yanked off his sunglasses and hung them from his front left pocket. The sun was bright, forcing him to squint. The little guy went on but Gonzales quit listening, his eyes staying fixed on Alejandro’s face.

Gonzales hated to admit it, but the young man reminded him of his father. A poor, honest guy just trying to survive. Gonzales had interrogated his share of stool pigeons, mostly guys who couldn’t live without the taste of drugs. This guy wasn’t one of them.

“That’s when I decided to stay here for good,” Gonzales heard the young man say. “After my wife died, I didn’t want to go back to Teptapa.”

“Your wife died?” Gonzales said, realizing that he’d missed an important piece of the story.

“Yes, sir,” the young man replied.

He went on to tell Gonzales about his late wife Elena, how they met when they were still teenagers and fell in love. At the end of the drawn-out tale, Alejandro explained that he’d gotten his green card after marrying an American.

By the time Alejandro finished, the sun had dropped low in the sky. Gonzales offered Alejandro a lift, since the man hadn’t come in a car. On the way to town, he offered to buy Alejandro dinner.

 

Nearly six months had passed since the national media picked up the Watsonville raid story. Ed Harris had gotten an offer from the network, but instead of New York, the main office sent him to Los Angeles. One afternoon in late November, the editor called him in. A sit-down with the editor meant only one thing. Ed was getting canned.

“Have a seat, Ed,” Bill Blackstone, the editor, said.

Ed eased himself into a blue-cushioned chair.

“Remember that story you did about the raid when all those illegals were arrested?”

“Yes,” Ed said. Sweat had sprouted on his brow.

“I want you to go back and do a follow-up. Seems the town is practically going under. Businesses shut down. It’s an interesting angle on the immigration story. What happens when a town’s dependent on illegals.

“Also,” he added. “The mothers, it seems, are still there. Can’t work. Can’t go back to Mexico.”

Ed couldn’t suppress the smile. How silly that he’d worried about being fired.

“That’s a good story,” Ed said. “I’ll head up there today.”

“Stay overnight,” Blackstone added. “We can make this into a longer segment. We’ll give you five minutes.”

 

Miriam’s eyes never left Gonzales’ face as he told her about Alejandro. She finished her first margarita before Gonzales had taken a swallow.

“He got to me, you know,” Gonzales said. “I can’t explain it but I just felt like I knew him. Like I’d known him all my life.”

“I bet he reminded you of your dad,” Miriam said.

Gonzales remembered now how easily Miriam had been able to read him.

“These people,” Gonzales went on, and ran his finger around the rim of his glass, licking salt off his index finger and taking a sip of the sour margarita. “They’re all just trying to make a living.”

“Just like your dad,” Miriam said and nodded.

Before she’d finished her first drink, Miriam felt a buzz. It was a relief to be with a man, even if he happened to be her ex-husband. She didn’t need to impress him or decide whether there was chemistry or if she should make an excuse and cut the evening short.

Joe looked good to her. Was she fooling herself into thinking he’d changed in the two years they’d been apart?

Ed couldn’t believe this was the same town. He walked down Main Street, past a line of empty storefronts. Nearly every window had a For Rent sign. Empty waxed soda cups and clear plastic covers with straws poking out collected in front of the locked doors. Businesses had packed up and gone, like after the last big oil bust in the little East Texas farming community where Ed had grown up.

Mayor Gibbons said he’d never seen anything like it.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Gibbons told Ed during an interview the previous night. “Since we had the big farms, Watsonville was always a pretty lively town. This is scary.”

The scariness, Ed found out, was more than the aftermath of the raids coming one after the other, when undocumented workers were cleaned out of the town’s farms. The raids were just the start. Strawberries went unpicked, shriveling up and dropping onto the ground to rot. Stores went belly up. Then the rain stopped.

Ed interviewed the mothers who were still in town, waiting for their immigration hearings. He questioned the police chief and the Catholic priest.

“This is a taste of what’s going to happen everywhere,” the priest told him.

“Watsonville isn’t unique,” the priest went on. “In every city and town, undocumented workers are the lifeline.”

He looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes.

“Then there’s the weather. Scientists have been predicting it for years.”

Ed wanted to find a bright spot to add at the end of the story. But as he walked the ghostly downtown sidewalks, he understood that this story might not get its happy ending after all.

 

The rent on Miriam’s salon hadn’t been paid for three months. She wasn’t earning enough to make her next payment. Gonzales was happy to help, even if he had to acknowledge that Miriam’s marrying him a second time might not be completely for love.

The night after Miriam accepted the engagement ring from Gonzales, he took Alejandro out to dinner, at the steakhouse by the highway. He didn’t know why, but the police chief wanted to tell the young Mexican that he was planning to marry his first wife for the second time.

“So,” Gonzales said, after he shared the happy news. He caught Alejandro mid-bite.

Alejandro took his time. He looked up from his plate but didn’t smile, which caused the normally hard to intimidate police chief to squirm.

“You are a lucky man,” Alejandro said at last. “I wish that I could have a second chance with my wife. When she was alive, I took her for granted. And then, all of a sudden, she was gone.”

Alejandro waved his fork in the air, as if directing an invisible orchestra.

“The thing with life,” he said. “We always want what we don’t have.

“No one thought it was good to have Mexicans working here. Now, all the farmworkers are gone. People see that the workers brought everything to Watsonville.”

Alejandro looked out the window at the darkened sky.

“Even the rain is gone.”

 

The reception began under a wide open sky, broken only by the wispiest clouds. Colored balloons and crepe paper were strung up around the city’s main park. Women who were waiting to be deported back to Mexico had prepared beef and chicken tamales with ingredients Gonzales bought. Mayor Gibbons made a toast, saying he hoped that Watsonville would get a second chance, like the town’s police chief was getting with his ex-wife.

Ed Harris did the stand-up in front of the long tables covered with food. He was thrilled to have something positive to report.

 

About the author:

Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, for the 2013 story South’s Million Writers Award, and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and in eleven anthologies.

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