We Are Zeferino's Father

ZEFERINO DROVE DOWN Folsom Street wondering why he had never noticed Raphael's Silver Cloud Cafe and Bar. He had driven down Folsom Street, down Seventeenth, and even down Shotwell on hundreds of occasions, investigating scores of cases. He conjured up a mental picture of the area as he waited at a stoplight--the Rite Spot restaurant was there, a transmission repair shop, and an empty field surrounded by Cyclone fencing. How could he miss seeing something that Teodoro had insisted would be irresistible? He passed under the freeway at Division Street, then turned right onto Seventeenth. As he did so, a large advertising sign above the street suddenly came to life.

The instant he saw it he pulled over. He slammed one wheel into the curb, killed the engine, and slumped back violently in his seat like a man who has just had a fatal seizure. His lungs were heaving, his eyes were opened wide, and he seemed to be staring at the huge sign above the building to his right. In fact, he was pushing through the locked door of a room that had been sealed shut for over thirty years.

He reached up to place the heels of both hands over both eyes. He pressed hard against this inner sight, his wrists quaking uncontrollably as unfamiliar thoughts stepped tenuously out from a darkened corner of his soul; long-forgotten faces came forward into half shadow; lost names were almost audible; vanished places were cast in low light. Blinded by the palms of his own hands, he saw reincarnated lines of brown men laboring in their prime, bending in the hard, curving heat of the lettuce fields, their taut, salty bodies cupping soft, cool ideas within their sweating skulls.

Within his parked car, his thoughts flew with the speed of light back to Fat City: Sam Fao--Stockton in 1959. Back to noisy El Dorado Street, the Chinese-owned whorehouses, the noisy gambling rooms, the taxi dance halls. He smelled once more the foul, dank scent of opium dens in downtown Stockton, the musk of newly cut soil, and the alkaline odor of working men who have stopped sweating salt water and have started sweating their own life essence.

Before the lawyer emerged--before the ordered thoughts came forward, tied to the present by circumstances and by the constraints of linear time--Zeferino spent an instant inside a Quonset hut full of farmworkers somewhere in the Central Valley, a younger Ted For Short pulling silver dollars from behind an astonished boy's ear.

Stockton had once teemed with sojourners. It had been the world's capital of manual labor in those days. Beings from every world had gathered there to find work, to gamble, to love, and to learn to dance. Young men came from every place under heaven to spend themselves, to languish and grow old in anonymity.

So many things in his mind were crying out to be remembered, scurrying for a place on the tip of his speechless tongue. He seemed to recall a bench in a small park somewhere in downtown Stockton. It was a bench full of old men. From a feeding pigeon's level he looked upward at the oldest campesinos, sitting quietly on their bench in the park, any hopes of ever seeing Mexico or the Philippines again long gone. The bench had a name, a hard-earned name. What was it called?

Even as he asked himself the question, another memory pushed itself upward from his subconscious. He was a boy again, bending in the wilting heat of the Imperial Valley or the Central Valley and hearing once again the long-forgotten words of his Tia Juanita as she dipped dark green jalapeños into an egg-and flour batter.

"Zefe, if you should ever get a toothache, pray to St. Apollonia. If you should ever see a leper, mijo, immediately say a prayer to St. Giles. And if you should happen to see a leper with a blonde, be sure to say a prayer also to Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of hairdressers. A prayer to those two should just about cover the situation."

It had been one of his Tia Juanita's ways of welcoming him to the camps, of preparing him for the hard life with the migratory farmworkers.

"St. Anthony watches over all of the workers, but angelitos will watch over you personally, mijo. You have my personal guarantee on that. They are always there," his aunt had assured him, "and they always will be there. I can see them now. There's one there and one over there." She had pointed about the room without using her hands and without looking up from her work.

The boy had not seen any angels when he labored in the sweltering heat of the Imperial Valley. Where were they? They were surely not there in the heat and the drudgery. Not even angels could stand that place; it was too much like hell.

At the edge of the hot, shadeless fields, Zeferino the boy silently worked the furrow closest to the highway. He was only dimly aware of the cars and trucks that passed in the distance, their shapes bent by snaking waves of heat. The squash he pulled from beneath the wide leaves were wet, and the stiff white hairs on the skin of the plants were working their way through his soaked leather gloves. Squash were as hard to pick as cotton, he thought. Both plants fought back ferociously; with all their fiber they resisted being taken forcibly from their homes.

His hands were getting raw again, almost as raw as his back, which was now covered with a layer of white salt. The petroleum jelly that one of his tios had applied there to prevent sweat rash had been completely washed away by midmorning.

Zefe the boy paused to look to his right. What he saw there soothed and comforted him. Señor Chavez was out there as usual, passing out handbills that protested the miserable working conditions and the slave wages. He was young and unknown and picketing all by himself, stooping now and again to carefully smell the leaves for the telltale scent of insecticides.

Every fifth furrow from the boy's own to the far horizon held one of his uncles, Mexican tios, Pinoy tiyos, all of their arms flying from the plant rows to the wooden hampers that they dragged beside them. The ranks of workers were his family now, a male tribe of wanderers.

He could see their private reveries hovering above their bobbing heads like swarms of brown gnats. They would all sleep like death tonight, thought the boy. They always did. Now was when they did their dreaming. The boy could hear their dreams flitting in and out of his own like dolorous waves of radio interference. They were transmitting visions of windy corners and wet corridors and prisms of colored rain; of monsoon-drenched skies rushing down to batter banyan and of the flooded streets of Quiroga, the vendors scurrying to cover their wares with sheets of blue plastic. The dreams seeped like forlorn sweat through their skin and into their mouths and tasted like halo-halo and agua de tamarindo.

On so many cold mornings--far, far from this one, all of his tios, every one of his uncles grown old--their gray heads combed and motionless on silk pillows--would be lowered into the same dirt they had so lovingly tended with their lives. Even Señor Chavez.

As he gazed across the field, he saw that the manong and the braceros were racing each other again, having their usual friendly but intense competition. The boy found himself falling far behind once more. He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and began to move with even more speed, the ache in his arms making him grimace. To ease the pain, he imagined he was a foot soldier in Hannibal's army, laboring heroically across the snow-covered Alps. He imagined the cool lip of the enameled dipper and the dripping condensation on the sides of the water jug that waited for him at the end of the row.

He did not notice when the school bus pulled off the highway and turned down the dirt road toward the field. He did not hear the brakes being set or the door opening. He looked up from his work only when something told him to, urged him to in a small, directionless voice. He saw two shining black shoes perched together pertly at the edge of the field, not ten feet to his left. Above the shoes were white stockings and above those stood a little red-haired girl his own age, smiling with her whole face and wearing a flowered dress.

"Hi," she said, "I'm Tina."

Before the boy could answer her, a woman who had been busily lining up a row of children alongside the yellow bus called out frantically, then ran over to where Tina was standing. She knelt down and with a firm hand on each shoulder turned Tina to face her.

"Now, Tina," she said sternly but with obvious restraint, "didn't I tell you before we left the classroom not to get too close to them or speak to them? See, he doesn't understand a solitary word you're saying."

Tina, despite the restraints, turned her head to look at the boy, who had already moved down the furrow in silence.

"They're not from here, Tina."

The teacher had lowered her voice and found that she enjoyed hearing the heroic tenor of her own patience.

"Who are those people with him," asked Tina, "the shiny ones?"

"What shiny ones?" asked the teacher, who dismissed the nonsense with an impatient shake of the head. "They're all from another world. They're wetbacks. They're not like us."

Shading her eyes with her hand, she looked out at the brown men in the far furrows. Prideless men wearing ridiculous clothing, she thought. Straw hats tied down around their cheeks with red bandannas. And baseball hats under those! And why on earth did they wear three shirts? Then she turned her head toward the boy, to see what it was that Tina found so fascinating. All the teacher saw was a young boy working alone.

She shook her head, then tried to gather herself for her lecture on how vegetables got from God, to the fields, then to market, and finally to our dinner tables. She took Tina's hand and dutifully led her away from the dark furrows.

"From another world altogether."

ABOVE RAPHAEL'S SILVER Cloud Cafe and Bar, high above the entrance and in front of a strange ten-foot-tall shining pillar, was a sign. It was a sign from God. Two of His myriad, heavenly minions had been ordered to stay put. They were sensual lovers or doting siblings or laboring compañeros, sent by the builder of all heavens to work here and to remain laboring in this shabby world of men for a short season of a hundred mortal lifetimes.

The two were downed flyers, commanded to turn their ears from the synagogue of quarks, from the far away, solemnizing rafters, and to listen from their feeble mast of lifeless metal and glass to the words of lowly man.

It was a two-sided neon sign, a brilliant, flashing display that could be seen from miles away. Twin Rubenesque cherubim were painted onto a metal form that had the dull-speckled, titian buff of a faded tapestry. Both had the burning red hair of a pre-Raphaelite painting. Pink, crimson, and yellow neon tubes and lightbulbs were set off from the daubed metal surface by brackets and flashed brightly to mimic the image in paint.

Long ago, a young welfare worker came out to the asparagus fields where Zeferino the boy had been working. She looked totally out of place in her suit and heels. Someone had told her there was a boy laboring out there who should've been in school. Zeferino remembered that she had asked where his mother was and that he had told her that he didn't know, that she never spent much time in the camps. When she asked him about his father he told her that he had no idea who he was and that he had never seen him.

"But I have lots of uncles, señora. In fact, I have over thirty of them," the boy had explained. The welfare worker didn't seem very impressed by what he had said, so she dragged the boy--kicking and screaming--out of the fields. His tios had protested, but they all knew that

she was right. They knew that a childhood should not be spent laboring in the furrows. Though the boy hated her at the time, he understood that the woman's heart was in the right place.

"I remember that she bought me some brand-new school clothes and made me take off all of my muddy gear," Zeferino said excitedly to an unconscious King and to Anatoly, who was parked in front of Radio City Music Hall. "Then she placed me into a classroom in some town that I can no longer recall. I can still see the faces of those children staring at my battered work boots. I do remember clearly that the teacher in that classroom ended the first day of class by reminding the children that in three days the school would be having their yearly Father's Day celebration. All of the children were expected to bring their fathers to school on that day."

"Pobrecito," said Raphael from above.

"I remember how miserable I felt as I walked back to the camp. I imagined myself at Father's Day, the only kid there without a father." It bothered the boy so much that he couldn't eat and even the sweet music from the Mexican Quonset couldn't cheer him up. He told one of his tios that night that he wanted to run away, that he just couldn't go back to that school on Father's Day.

"I must have told my tio the wrong day, because, on the day before Father's Day, thirty farmworkers dressed in their work clothes walked slowly, single file into the classroom. Each one had carefully combed his hair and put on his cleanest dirty work shirt. The entire classroom smelled of pomade and brilliantine and sweat.

"How could I ever have forgotten that morning?" Zeferino said, exhaling his emotions out onto the rusted hood of the cab and onto the windshield. Anatoly suddenly ceased his incessant chatter as Zeferino's voice dropped to a whisper.

"There they were, forming a circle around the class, all of them shifting nervously and smiling shyly at the teacher and so proudly at me. They had their sharpened paring knives and long machetes hanging from their belts. They had taken the time to brush the mud from their knee pads and each man had carefully folded his bandanna into his shirt pocket. Each of my uncles held his straw hat respectfully in his hands.

"They were Mexicans, Pinoys, and Hindus, all missing a day's pay...for me." Zeferino paused while the power of the memory washed over him. Anatoly said nothing and King moaned inconsolably in the backseat. Above them all, a silent Raphael watched and listened. Zeferino's eyes glistened with emotion.

"These were strangers in America, men who had been told again and again that their own lives were a poor imitation of the lives around them. But that morning, they all braved the other world for my sake. I remember that, finally, one of them stepped forward and with a heavy accent spoke a single sentence to the class: "We are Zeferino's father.' " TW

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