Saturday, July 19, 2014

Third Saturday Fiction

Chapter 1 from Fall in Love with an Orange Tree or a Book

By Shirley Skufca Hickman

Balancing on her ladder, seventeen-year-old Elena Hernandez clipped the stem of another orange and dropped it into the canvas bag slung across her body. Stopping to rest, she glanced past the orange grove to a cotton field and beyond to a grape vineyard bordered by valley oaks and eucalyptus trees. The merciless California sun beat down at midday, making her hot and uncomfortable.
    A radio blared with Mexican music, and Elena added her voice to the song, pretending she was at a fiesta and not in a hot, dusty field. Hearing the roar of vans at the edge of the grove, she turned to see what was happening.
    Suddenly, men in green uniforms from the border patrol swarmed though the orange grove, scattering field workers like frightened mice.
    “Elena,” her mother screamed as she scrambled down from a ladder against a nearby tree. “La Migra! Hide!”
    Elena quickly hit the ground. She jerked off the heavy canvas bag, not caring that the oranges tumbled out.
    “Dios Mió,” her father shouted. He flew off his ladder and ran.
    “Don’t run, Elena,” her mother cried. “There’s no time. Hide.”
    Crouching under a tree with low branches, Elena ripped off her yellow-cloth hat to be less visible and stuffed it into the pocket of her jacket. She kept her mouth and nose covered with her blue bandana to protect them from the dust and chemicals in the grove. Her long-sleeved jacket and shirt were heavy and hot. A trickle of sweat ran down the back of her neck. She hugged her knees, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering. She couldn’t see anything. She heard shouted commands in Spanish.
    “Get in the van!”
    Other voices pleaded. “I don’t got no family in Mexico. Don’t send me back!”
    “Let me tell my kids goodbye before you take me!”
    “Virgen Maria, help me.”
    Elena covered her ears with her hands to shut out the swearing and useless pleading.
    A black widow spider crept across Elena’s heavy brown boot. As it inched closer to the top of her boot, she shuddered. She couldn’t let it bite her, but if she made a noise she might be discovered. She had to act fast. Taking off one of her canvas gloves, Elena smashed the spider against her boot. She sat still, her heart pounding, waiting to see if anyone heard.
    A shadow fell near her. Making the sign of the cross, she silently prayed. Virgen María, save my parents.
    Rustling leaves caught her attention. She stopped praying. Don’t let them catch you, Mami.
    The shadow changed direction. Someone called out in Spanish, “Come out.”
    Elena’s heart raced. She heard branches bending, a hard slap, someone being kicked. Her mother cried out, “Please, don’t hurt me.”
    A man’s harsh voice ordered, “Come! Now!”
    Elena heard a scuffle and her mother’s voice. “I’ll be back.”
    Elena clasped her hands over her mouth to keep from calling to her mother. Shivering with fright, she stayed hidden under the tree.
    Doors on the vans slammed. Shouts of goodbye and promises to return rang throughout the grove. The voices grew dimmer, and slowly the sound of engines faded until Elena could no longer hear them.
    Still she waited, unsure that she was safe.
    Slowly she rose from behind the tree. Other pickers emerged from their hiding places and resumed working. No radio played. No one sang.
    Frantic, Elena ran to a group of men and asked, “Have you seen my parents?”
    “They took them in the van,” Raul Sanchez replied. “It’s a bad thing, but don’t worry, they’ll be back in a few days.”
    “Do you really think so?”
    He nodded. “George Vasquez got caught, and he was back in a couple of weeks.”
    “Don’t count on it.” Martin Garcia snorted. “They took my uncle last year and he’s still in Mexico.”
    Seeing Ignacio Rodriguez, the labor contractor who had hired her family, she ran to him.
    “Have you seen my parents?”
    “They’re gone.” Unconcerned, he stroked his thick, black moustache.
    “But they can’t be.” Tears streamed down Elena’s face. She tugged at the sleeve of his red-checkered shirt. “It must be a mistake.”
    He shrugged.
    “Why were they taken and other people weren’t?”
    He took off his straw hat to wipe his forehead with a blue bandana. “Who knows?”
    “Why did La Migra come today?”
    “It’s payday. Now the farmer won’t have to pay them.”
    “He didn’t call La Migra, did he?”
    Rodriguez scowled. “Who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time.”
    Realizing that she’d get neither help nor sympathy from him, she stood for a moment, trying to decide what to do. She felt like a stone was wrapped around her heart weighing her down, making it impossible for her to move.
    “You gonna stand around all day or get back to work?” Rodriquez shouted.
    If she refused to follow his orders, he might not pay her. She had no choice. She wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her jacket. “I’m going back to work.”
    She thought of Mami being forced into the van and how she would suffer silently. Even if he were terrified, Papi would argue.
    Maybe Raul Sanchez was right and they’d be home in a few weeks. That thought gave her some hope. Returning to the tree where she had dropped her oranges, she slipped the canvas bag on, and like a robot, climbed the ladder, picked the ripe oranges and dropped them into the opening at the side of the bag. When it was full, she carried it to the edge of the grove, opened the clips at the bottom of the bag and emptied the oranges into a large plastic bin. It would take over 900 pounds of oranges to fill one bin, but if she worked hard, she could fill three or four.
    At the end of the day, exhausted and depressed, Elena gathered her parents’ canvas bags and their clippers. She stuffed them into her bag and stood in line with the other pickers for her check of $96.80. Eager to leave the fields, she hurried to the Barrios’ family truck that had brought her and her parents to the fields. No one was there.
    Rodriguez followed. “I’ll take you home, Elena.”
    Turning, she asked, “Where are Señor and Señora Barrios?”
    “They’re gone,” he said simply. “Come with me. Throw your bags in the back.”
    Elena had no other way of getting home, so she accepted his offer, threw the bags and clippers in the bed of the truck and sat in Rodriguez’s red Ford truck. Smelling of dust and sweat, Rodriguez slid into his seat, his large stomach pinched behind the steering wheel.
    Elena took off her gloves and heavy coat and laid them on the seat near the door. The air-conditioned truck smelled of cigarette butts in the ashtray, but the coolness was a welcome relief from the scorching California sun.
    The air was clean enough to see the foothills, but a layer of pollution hid the Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. They sped past olive orchards, cotton fields, orange groves, and a dairy, but all Elena could think of was her parents and where they were now.
    She didn’t have the energy to cry again, but her mind churned with worry.
    Rodriguez reached over and put his hand on her knee. At first, Elena thought he was trying to comfort her. When she saw his leering smile, she shrank closer to the door, but she couldn’t move far enough to escape his hand.
    He stroked her thigh with his fat, stubby fingers. “Don’t be afraid. I want to be your friend.” He smiled, showing stained, crooked teeth.
    She understood what kind of a friend he had in mind. She wanted to scream at him. You fat pig! But she didn’t want him to get angry and hurt her.
    Dios Mió, Elena prayed silently. She should have known better than to get in his truck. Her father had warned her about men like Rodriguez, but she needed a ride home. If she tried to get out of the truck while it was moving, she’d get hurt or maybe killed, but if she stayed what might happen? She was thin and small, no match for Rodriguez.
    Trying to appear calm, she asked, “Is it okay if I turn on the radio?”
    He nodded.
    When she reached over to the radio, she had an excuse to brush away his hand. She played with the dial until she found a talk show, not wanting a music station that played romantic songs.
    Leaning back, she gathered her jacket and hat and put them on her lap.
    Rodriguez frowned but made no further attempt to touch her.
    When a car tried to pass and cut in too soon, Rodriguez slammed on the brakes to avoid an accident. Elena saw her chance. She opened the door and ran into a grove of olive trees.
    Rodriquez got out of his truck, shook his fist at her, cursing in Spanish and English, but he didn’t follow.
    Elena ran faster, shaking with fear and loathing.
    When she could run no longer, she fell on her knees in the middle of the grove to catch her breath.
    Slowly, her breathing returned to normal. She forced herself to rise and walk toward her home at the Roosevelt Farm Labor Camp.
    Maybe Rodriguez had called the border patrol and not the farmer. He’d get paid by the owner of the grove and wouldn’t have to share the money with the workers. Rodriguez wasn’t like other labor contractors her family had worked for who were honest and fair. He was like the coyotes who were paid to help immigrants cross the border, but sometimes they took the money and abandoned the people who paid them.
    Her father didn’t like Rodriguez either, but they had to show him proper respect, even if they didn’t think he deserved it. He gave them a job and that was more important than liking him. If Papi knew what had happened today, he would fight Rodriguez, but Papi was gone and there was no one to protect her. Rodriguez knew it. In her haste to get away, she’d left the bags in his truck. They cost over $200.00 each, and she had no money to replace them.
    As she made her way to the labor camp, Elena glanced over her shoulder several times, worried that Rodriguez had followed her. She hoped he didn’t know where she lived. The camp was built in the country and miles from the nearest town, so unless someone knew where it was, they couldn’t find it easily, but Rodriguez could ask somebody if he really wanted to know.
    This was the best place her family had ever lived, and it was a thousand times better than living in their car or a crowded apartment with another family. They had waited a year to get in the camp, but at last the house they lived in now was a real home.
    Once she reached the camp, she thought she’d feel better, but she didn’t. Usually when she walked past the office at the entrance and down the road lined with mulberry trees and flowering rose bushes, she felt happy and safe, but not today.
    What if my parents don’t come back? What if they’re in Mexico and don’t have the money to come home? What if La Migra sends them to prison? The man, who dragged Mami from her hiding place, hit her. Maybe she’s hurt and nobody will take her to a doctor? What if Papi got into a fight and got beat up so bad he had to go to the hospital and died? What if….
    She shook her head, trying to dislodge the horrible thoughts. I’ve got to stop this. My parents are all right. I’m letting my imagination get the better of me. As soon as my parents can, they’ll call and tell us where they are and how soon we’ll see them again.
    Talking to herself didn’t do much good. Sick with worry, her head and stomach ached and she couldn’t keep her hands from shaking.
    She couldn’t stop the worried thoughts that crowded her mind.
    What if Mami and Papi are gone a long time? I’ll have to take care of Miguel and Lupe. I’m their older sister, but I’ve never been in charge of them before. Ever since Miguel turned thirteen he’s been cocky and trying to act macho. He’ll never listen to me. Lupe might. Miguel is old enough to know the truth, but Lupe’s only seven, too young to understand what’s happened. I’ll have to make up a story that won’t scare her.
    Elena stood in the middle of the street, paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. She discarded several ideas and still couldn’t think of what she would tell Lupe.
    Slowly making her way past two rows of cinder block houses, she stood before her home, still uncertain how she would break the news to Miguel and Lupe.
    After wiping her tear-stained face with her bandana, she took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped into the room that served as a living room and kitchen.
    Wearing a white T-shirt stretched tight across his chest and jeans, Miguel sat with Lupe on the couch watching cartoons on television.
    Without looking up, Miguel said, “Hi, Elena, did you make lots of money today?”
    “Not enough,” she replied, on the verge of tears again.
    The tone of her voice must have given her away. Miguel stared at her. “What’s wrong?
    He left the couch and touched her shoulder. “You’ve been crying and you’re shaking. Tell me what’s wrong? Why aren’t Mami and Papi with you?”
    She leaned closer to him and whispered. “Go along with whatever I say. I’ll explain later.”
    As Lupe ran to Elena, her long, dark brown hair bounced on her pink T-shirt. “Where are Mami and Papi?”
    Elena hesitated, uncertain about what to tell Lupe. Better to lie. “Mami and Papi got an offer for a really good job in Bakersfield and that’s where they are.”
    Lupe’s large brown eyes filled with tears. “Why didn’t they come home to tell me goodbye?”
    “They had to go right away. They didn’t have time.” Despite her dirty clothes, Elena knelt and hugged her little sister. “It’ll only be for a few days. It’ll be fun to stay by ourselves.” She stood and glanced at Miguel, hoping he’d come to her rescue.
    “Just think Lupe,” he said. “We can stay up as late as we want and watch TV.”
    Lupe stopped crying. “Really?”
    Elena glared at Miguel. “Maybe tonight, but not on school nights. Lupe, why don’t you go to your bedroom and play? I have to talk to Miguel.”
    Lupe sat on Papi’s blue upholstered chair and crossed her arms. “If he’s in trouble, I want to stay and hear.”
    “No, Lupe. He’s not in trouble. It’s about homework.”
    “Oh, I don’t want to hear about that.” Lupe left the chair and bounced down the hall.
    Elena took a glass from the cupboard, turned on the tap at the sink, and filled the glass. She drank slowly, dreading the conversation she had to have with Miguel.
    He stood beside her. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
    “What really happened to Mami and Papi? They weren’t in an accident?” He shivered. “They aren’t… aren’t…?”
    “Oh, no, they aren’t dead.”
    “Where are they?”
    “La Migra took them. Mami said they’d be back. I believe her, don’t you?”
    “I don’t know what to think.”
    “Don’t trust anybody. Do you understand?” Today she learned how quickly Rodriguez would have taken advantage of her. Without telling Miguel about the labor contractor, she said, “You can’t tell anybody that Mami and Papi aren’t here. If teachers at school ask you about them, say everything’s fine. This is very important.”
    “By now some of our neighbors know what happened, but they won’t talk. If the authorities find out we aren’t living with our parents, immigration could deport you and me because we’re illegal too. Lupe was born in America so they might put her in a foster home.”
    Miguel’s brown eyes filled with worry. “They can’t do that, can they?”
    “They could. That’s why it’s important that you pretend everything is just like it always was.”
    Miguel chewed his thumb like he always did when he was nervous. “Who’s going to take care of us?”
    “I will.” She hoped she sounded confident, even if she didn’t feel it. “Mow the lawn every week so nobody will know Papi is gone. We can do this if we stick together.”
    “This really, really sucks!”
    “Miguel, watch your language.”
    “You’re not the boss of me.”
    She stared him down. “I won’t boss you if you do your part. Will you?”
    Without answering, Miguel left the room.
    Elena dragged herself into the bathroom, stripped off her dirty clothes, and showered. The warm water eased her sore muscles but did nothing for her aching heart. She dried her black shoulder-length hair and fastened it into a ponytail.
    After dressing, she returned to the kitchen to fix dinner. It wasn’t a real kitchen, only one wall with a sink, stove, cupboards, and a refrigerator. A table and chairs separated the kitchen from the small living room that was large enough for a couch, Papi’s blue upholstered chair, two end tables, and a television. Above the TV, framed pictures of the family and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe filled the wall.
    Miguel came out of his bedroom. “When’s dinner?”
    “As soon as I fix it.”
    “Hurry up. I’m starved.”
    Elena opened the refrigerator, found leftover tortillas and a pot of beans her mother had cooked the night before. Her hands shook and her stomach continued to ache as she heated food for supper.
    Can I really take care of Miguel and Lupe like I promised? How did Mami work all day in the fields and come home to cook and take care of us? Lupe is just a kid. I have to protect her. What if I can’t?
    Fatigue wrapped around her. Her chest felt tight, and she could hardly think. Slowly, she forced herself to take normal breaths to keep from screaming.

Copyright © 2014 by Shirley Skufca Hickman
Fall in Love with an Orange Tree or a Book became available in paperback last month. Its California author has published two other novels and a guide for busy parents to help their children succeed in school. Shirley Skufca Hickman has a website.


  1. The California author from whose published novel today's excerpt was taken has published two other novels and a guide for busy parents to help their children succeed in school. [Thank you, Shirley!]

  2. It is crucial that this dark subject is flooded with brilliant light, and I am so pleased that such a gifted writer as Shirley Hickman has taken on the task. She will certainly have a positive impact on readers of all ages as we wrestle with our demons on the subject of immigration. .