August 20, 2012 at 2:02 PM
A Serialized Novel and Podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., is a communication professor, author and eavesdropper.
The following is Chapter Ten of a serialized novel and podcast. Start at Chapter One.
My dad had fond memories of his childhood in rural northern New Mexico listening to the wild coyotes howling at the moon and fishing for rainbow trout along the Rio Grande River. He wanted me to experience some of this magic as well. I spent several weeks on Grandpa Eli’s and Grandma Rosella’s farm during summer vacation after completing fifth grade.
I took very quickly to country life and reveled in the freedom and big open skies. My cousin Julián, who was a year older than me, lived a little way down the road and we hung out together all the time. There was absolutely no demand on my time other than feeding the animals in the morning and collecting eggs from the possessive hens before the sun went down. This left most of the day for adventure and exploring the countryside.
Julián was a different breed of kid than those that I was used to in Santa Fe. He had an untamed wild streak that only country kids can cultivate given the overabundant amount of free time they have on their hands without other diversions. Julián’s idea of fun was tempting fate and indulging in risk-taking activities in the extreme. He was a red-headed, stocky boy with a face full of freckles and hair the consistency of hay. He was constantly involved in horrific wrecks on his homemade go-cart that he’d built using a modified motorcycle engine. It seemed like every other day he would take a curve on a dirt road going way too fast and the inevitable result was uncontrollable skidding and a wipe-out in a massive cloud of dust. Each time I witnessed this event, I was sure he would be lying dead or mutilated but somehow he always managed to rise to his feet and walk away grinning psychotically with another series of scrapes and future scars to add to his growing collection. Needless to say, I never took him up on his offers to give me a ride. My first and last harrowing experience as his passenger took place before I knew that he was a madman. The terror I felt that day was indescribable. Annihilation seemed inevitable and I lost all sense of pride and stoicism as I cried for him to stop and tightly gripped the sides of the death cart pulling with all my weight and will against the forces of gravity to keep us from rolling over and breaking our necks.
One of the occasions that I vividly recall was just an example of a typical day in the life of Julián. We were throwing a football around my grandparents’ house one afternoon, heaving it as high as we could and trying to catch it as it came down. I cocked my arm and aimed at the white, fluffy clouds and as the ball reached its apex and began its descent, it drifted toward the opening at the top of the well house and as if directed by magnetism, it glided precisely into the opening and into the deep, dark watery depths below.
I shrugged my shoulders and presumed that the ball belonged to the well forever. However, this conclusion did not satisfy Julián. Rather than accepting our loss, he saw our plight as a challenge to push fate once again. He peered over the stone wall of the well house into the murky hole. It was so deep that even with a flashlight, it was impossible to see the bottom. He dropped a rock over the wall and after a substantial delay; we heard a faint splash from below. Even peering over the wall made my knees weak. I stared aghast as Julián removed his shoes and hoisted his legs over the side.
“Hey, be careful man, if you fall in, there will be one less vato in the world.”
In typical Julián fashion he grinned wildly and replied, “What’s the matter, you scared? You little chicken-shit.”
I stared in horror as he began climbing down the well house, gripping the jutting rocks that surrounded the hole as it descended into the dark hell below.
“Julián, I’m not kidding man! Don’t be stupid. You better stop right now. It’s not worth killing yourself for a crummy ball. I’m gonna tell your dad and he’ll kick your ass.”
Julián yelled up, “I’ll kick your ass, punk, if you say anything.”
I stood helplessly with a gnawing intuition that this time, he had gone too far.
After a few silent moments I yelled down, “Julián are you okay? Answer me man, don’t mess around!”
Suddenly, I heard a shriek and it was followed by a muffled splash in the bowels of the well.
“Julián, say something,” I hollered peering over the side.
“Elvis, Elvis, help me.”
I heard him splashing frantically below and for the first time ever, I detected fear in his voice.
My heart raced as I ran for help. Thankfully my grandpa had a visitor who could talk and he raced to the phone to call the local sheriff. I ran back to the well house where several people had already gathered as the word spread quickly. Everyone was yelling down for Julián to hold on and assuring him that help was on the way. After about thirty minutes, a fire truck careened down the dusty road with lights flashing, scattering the startled crows. A long rope was lowered into the hole. A red-faced fireman instructed Julián to grab hold of the knot on the end and he slowly, hand-over-hand pulled up my sobbing friend. The rope seemed much longer coming up than it had going down but finally the top of Julián’s orange head emerged into the daylight. He squinted as he was clutched by both arms and pulled over the well house wall. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the bulge in the front of his shirt where he had undone a couple of the top buttons and stuffed the troublesome football inside. He was none the worse except for a few more bumps and bruises. Ironically, it was that darn football that had kept him afloat while he waited to be rescued.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Julián didn’t seem to give a whit about his own hide was his home life. Julián’s father, Cuate was well known around Chimayo as a hopeless drunk. Julián’s family lived in a dilapidated trailer on a plot of land down the road from my grandparents. He shared his humble dwelling with his younger sister and his stoic, long-suffering mother. They eked out an existence of sorts, despite Cuate’s obsession with scrounging and stealing every dollar he could from his wife Mida to spend at the Saints and Sinners bar in town. The only steady income the family survived on was a monthly social security disability check that Cuate had earned in compensation for injuries he had sustained in the Army during the Korean War. Although Cuate had long healed from his war wounds, he made no effort to contribute in any way to the family’s resources. He tended to sleep most of the day and read from a huge stack of comic books until night fell and it was time to wander into town and begin his quest for any bottle he could put his lips to.
Julián never showed any outward hostility or anger toward his father. In fact, he didn’t acknowledge him at all. It was as if Cuate was a formless ghost. I never saw Julián directly address his father. When Cuate was the topic of conversation, Julián would voice his complaints toward his mother even if Cuate was in the room. Cuate would visibly flinch when Julian would speak about him as if he wasn’t there.
The yard in front of the trailer was piled with trash everywhere. Old tires, broken bottles, empty tin cans, and rotting car bodies made navigating the property hazardous after dark. I was amazed at how normal Julián and his sister seemed despite the despicable conditions that they called home. Somehow Mida managed to create a domestic life around them in the midst of the chaos. She brought in a little extra money by occasionally doing laundry for the neighbors or selling canned apricots and cherries that they picked from the orchards down by the river.
What sometimes made their household particularly difficult was that Cuate was an angry drunk. Often he would stumble home as the sun was beginning to rise and he would take out his frustration and shame on his poor wife. She had been battered so many times that she had stopped counting. I knew that one day Julián would no longer put up with this. I just hoped he wouldn’t kill Cuate.