The hair brush was my enemy. It would come out early morning and my mother would warn me it was getting late as the time looking for the brush went on. I couldn’t be late for school. I loved everything about the elementary school me, my sister and eventually some of my brothers would attend. There was a beautiful mountain view. From the hills tucked under the sharp mountain top you could see thick puffs of white steam from the plant my mom worked. Then the small town gave way to fields. Straight rows of apple trees, peaches, alfalfa, wheat and more apples. I usually hid the brush in hopes of being able to wear my hair down like so many of the other girls. I had long brown hair and the only acceptable arrangements were one big braid, two small side braids or one ponytail. The place where my hair and forehead connected would be tightly pulled back. I was mistaken for Asian several times as a child. My sister awaited the same fate. As soon as my hair was fashioned into a respectable style, she would take my place sitting crisscrossed on the floor below my mother as she sat in the chair. I shouldn’t have trusted her to hide the brush. My mom always found it when she hid it.
We would each get two tacos made with flour tortillas my mother made every morning and night. They would be filled with whatever we had—eggs, beans, meat in sauce or chorizo and egg. My mother would wrap them in aluminum foil and give us each a quarter to buy a small carton of milk at lunchtime. It had been weeks since I had milk. I used my quarters to play video games at the gas station on the walk to school. Water was just fine with the tacos. Besides, I liked to eat fast because I was embarrassed of my lunch. I wanted sandwiches and Twinkies. I thought those kids must be rich with all that good stuff in their lunch bags.
The wind would carry the smell of apples and damp earth around harvest time. Long open top trailers pulled by semis would haul the wooden bins filled with apples to storage. I had heard a story about a man named Johnny Appleseed. He walked the land and planted apple seeds as he went. I marveled at how neatly he planted all the trees and how many different apple seeds he had. Each time I ate an apple, I would look at the seeds and with a finger, scoop them out. I tried to find a difference between the green, red and yellow but they all looked the same. I cut some of them open to see if their existence was colored with their future fruit. No luck. I asked my dad how to tell the difference and how long it would take to grow a tree. He answered as he always answered. He patted me on the head and said all I needed was to plant it in the ground and it would grow. That’s it. He was not one for small talk, much less step by step instructions. I planted the seeds and waited. He knew how to make trees grow.
We had settled in the small town because there was work most of the year. He eventually became a manager of a large tree nursery. He said he got the job because he always said yes. He told us about the day he was working in the field hand pulling weeds from endless rows. To the people in charge he was just one of the group riding every day in a company van that would take people to the fields they were needed. He wore white long sleeve shirts to get some protection from the burning sun. His English wasn’t that strong yet. The man we would come to know as El Pajaro yelled out to the group of bent over workers and asked if anyone knew how to drive a tractor. El Pajaro had no sons. His two daughters often accompanied him in the fields and orchards. One more than the other. Most of the workers kept working and only a few stood. There was silence. My father said yes. He was given the keys for a small tractor that had been fitted with an attachment to make more rows for planting. It couldn’t be that different from a car. He had never driven a car in Mexico. He lowered the attachment too soon and ran over freshly planted little trees. The wooden branches that the group had been so carefully weeding around were gone. He continued. Only at the end of the day when he got off the tractor did he dare take in the full scope of his work for the day. His rows were crooked and some in the group shook their heads. Others laughed and told him that would be the last time he was ever going to be allowed near the equipment. It was dangerous to talk to the bosses too much. If they got mad at you, the van would just stop picking you up. The next day was like any other. My mother had got home at 11 pm from her shift. She would work long days in different areas of a plant that made French fries and potato patties. Sometimes they would sell the employees boxes and she would bring them home. It was like a party for us. I had never went to a restaurant that sold fries but I was sure the kids with the good lunches probably had. My mother woke at 4 am to make my father his lunch. My father waited for the van. It came promptly at 5:30 am. When he arrived, Mr. Perleberg wanted to talk to him. El Pajaro would ask my dad if he had experience doing many other things after that day. His answer was always yes. People called him El Pajaro because it was hard for them to say his last name. Parlybird they would say. Eventually it became bird and bird in Spanish is pajaro.
My father wore a light tweed jacket, slacks and crisp white shirt under the jacket to El Pajaro’s funeral. I had never seen him cry before that day. Did El Pajaro know he was more of a father to my dad than his own? He had purchases some large sunglasses for the funeral. El Pajaro came to trust my father and placed him in positions ever increasing in responsibility. For that my father ever grateful and loyal.
There would be a great fall from grace following the parting of Mr. Perleberg. In a few short months, his 30 year career would be ended with little more than a 15 minute dismissal.