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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The metal was shining so bright in the low sun I could barely make out the color, but it looked like a ’68 or ’69 Camaro rolling across the horizon. It may have been red, fire-engine red.     

 

“You little pancakes know I used to be a fireman, don’t you.”        

 

“Were you really, Grandpa?” Both kids were question-happy but Frank was the one who couldn’t let it go. If he was curious he’d chase his prey to the ends of the Earth. My wife had been showing them some old, old photos, and the twins were on the trail, Frank in the lead.       

 

“Sweetie,” I pointed, “can you bring me that book over there?” Vanessa, after silently confirming with her brother that it was okay, trotted to the steps and retrieved it. We were sitting on the porch, August’s five o’clock cooling breeze—you could set your watch by it,” my wife often said—it was running an hour late, perhaps destined to be a complete no-show. Still, the heat was tolerable and one can do worse than sip lemonade with a couple of nine-year olds. My wife Bella—no one was named better—was in the kitchen. We had the kids until eight tonight, when Hector and Julissa would either walk or drive up and swoop them away. Wednesdays were good.

 

“Grandpa? Grandpa! Were you?”

 

I smiled. Frank was sitting on my left, his right hand tapping my shoulder, and now Vanessa was re-settling on my right, the big book still in her hands. I took it and opened to the page I knew well, page 82.

 

Pages eighty to ninety of “History of A Small Town” were packed with what we used to call “team pictures” of our (then) small fire and police departments.  I was in this picture and only this one. “All we need is a batboy to sit in front, with crossed bats,” someone said aloud, as the visiting photographer was fiddling with his old contraption. True, the camera he used wasn’t old then, but contraption was a fair descriptor. It’s still a word I love, and employ whenever I get the chance.

 

In the photo that includes a much younger me, I am one of four sitting on the bench, our five taller comrades standing behind us. And yes, I was a fireman. It wasn’t anything I’d ever planned to be, I assure you, but I was. Not for long, but I did it. I was neither brave nor skilled but I did what was needed and I’m forever in debt to those who do it now. It is not a gesture. It is not a job. It is far more than that.

 

I pointed to my younger self. Vanessa giggled like a phony laugh track as Frank said: “That’s not you!” I hemmed and hawed for all I was worth before playing the old “hmm, maybe you’re right. It’s probably Pedro Infante.” Which had no effect on my audience. Apparently my son has failed to teach his kids about Pedro. “Okay, then, maybe Paul Newman?” “Grandpa,” one or both squealed, “what are you talking about?” “Golly,” I said, “could it be Tom Cruise? John Travolta? Oh, I know! Vicente Fernandez, that’s it!”

 

Bella joined us as I was tossing the Fernandez card on the table.       

 

“Your grandfather likes to think he was once young and handsome. The truth is, sweet ones, he was.” She bent to kiss me on the cheek. “And is, … but oh, my heavens. Of all the Fernandez men I could have married, I chose Grandpa Alberto.”          

 

The kids bolted, leaping off the porch swing and sending it rocking a bit, and raced each other to the blue plastic wading pool in the yard. In moments, each was sitting and splashing. Bella snuggled in next to me. I’d had my hands on her knees, and elsewhere, for fifty years and I had no intention of stopping. I know that “taste” is the sense that involves, well, taste, but to me, the touch of her skin, even through her dusty Levi’s—that is the definition of delicious. That’s just me, perhaps, but it is so.

 

But yes, I was a fireman. The big blaze we had downtown, the one that, in its own way, led to the blossoming of our little village? I was on it, didn’t sleep for at least 36 hours and more. None of us did. No loss of life, not even one serious injury, despite the terrible winds and flames. We were rightfully proud of that, and grateful, too, and relieved. After the dust cleared, or the smoke, if you will, I realized I wasn’t cut out for that line of work. I did it for two more years and I resigned. Life is uncertain no matter what, but I had married Bella and didn’t want to tempt fate any more than necessary. I trained as a plumber and I ran my own business, eventually with three trucks and five employees—not as exciting nor as critical, but absolutely important—for forty years. I still help out when asked. It is good, honest labor and I was home almost every night, home to the woman I love. You can’t ask for more.

 

And now my son Hector and his good wife, Julissa, half a mile away, and their little ones Frankie and Vanessa—we see them a couple of times a week, sometimes more—again, we are fortunate.

 

It all could have been different, so different.

 

I was eighteen, or said I was, anyway, and working days at Kelly’s Car Wash across the valley. I’d only been here a year and could barely speak the language, and I took whatever work I could get. At night I scrubbed the floors at a grocery, but after what happened at Kelly’s I never went back to either place. It was another August, must have been ’64, and I was bringing a sweet Chevy out to the drying area—man, did that thing sparkle—when my buddy Beto scremed “La Migra” and jumped in on the passenger side! I floored it, drove us about a mile to the highway where I parked it, still wet, leaving car, keys and job for someone else to find. A trucker barely slowed before Beto hopped in, this time headed east. I never saw him again. I walked and ran west, about ten miles, staying out of sight as much as I could. I slept in a field—it’s a Chevy dealership now (is that irony? I think it is)—before walking into a town that was half on fire. They’d take anyone that day and once they did, they kept me. That was my ticket to a safe and legal life.                                                                                              

 

I drive an Audi now. I’ve had a bunch of cars and trucks but never one made by Mister Chevrolet. It just didn’t feel right. But one day I’m going over to Kelly’s—it’s run by his daughter now, or maybe it’s a granddaughter—and see if they’ve got my last paycheck. That would be something. They owed me for a week, and even at $1.65 an hour, and not asking for any interest, it ought to be enough to take Frankie and Vanessa, and Bella and me, too, out for milkshakes at Lefty’s.

 

Maybe next Wednesday.

 

-Tony Press

 

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