Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009



Lucas Sarcona

The ranch sits at the end of the gravel road that winds the length of Goleta Canyon, past rows of tomatoes and peppers into the foothills a ways.  Corn stalks stand tall in a field to one side, the husks and leaves powdered with dust spewed from the road where a small settlement of workers live next to the fields in clusters of old trailer homes and a covered arena where Samuel would often see men play and drink beer.  Whose yells came through the truck window as he passed.  The curving roadway turns to dirt through sparse lemon orchards, past fans like robotic sentries between the trees and blow the fruit from freezing in winter and the machine shop where a heavyset man sweated over a tractor engine.  Past walnut and avocado trees bunched together along the dusty lane, the orchard a maze of branches and radiant foliage.  Fleeting glimpses of pathways between the trees moving by the rows, these rifts during the harvest season bearing workers atop spindly ladders.  Early morning and no one besides the mechanic on the way up the canyon.  The crew would arrive soon at the ranch, the thought of the workday hollowing a feeling in his stomach not like hunger.

Several workers waited, leaning against a van at the bottom of the driveway looking on as he parked in front of his place.  Veinte minutos.  The mobile home is raised on cinder blocks on leveled plot at the sloping wall of the canyon.  He unlocks the front door and slips his boots off.  The clock over the table reads seven oclock.  In the kitchen he washes his hands and makes coffee.  Not ten yards from his place is the orchard, the rush of sprinklers and wooden pattering of water against thick vegetation audible from the window.  In the bedroom changing his clothes quickly, the popping of tires on the gravel road out in front of the barn as another car arrives.  He steps down the steep gravel driveway to the crew gathered there.  The men fit about the jeep and trailer with ladders and supplies, already the whistling and heckling that will be heard across the canyon through the day.  The jeep bumps slowly down the dirt road and into the orchard, dust unfurling in the wake of its heavy burden.

In the afternoon he sat on a plastic lawn chair with coffee, listening to the crew at the other end of the orchard, laughing and whistling to one another.  The men did not give a damn about him or Perkins’ orchard but would fill a dozen crates a day and prove themselves and when the tractor trailer came up the canyon to take the fruit away at day’s end the men would talk and drink beer, lazing about and the work done leaning against their spent vehicles in the fading sunlight.  The gate creaked and clattered shut with the wind that breathed down the canyon from time to time.  Perkins’ truck came up the road, the tenor pitch of the diesel engine recognizable and echoing raucously back from the canyon wall.  Samuel walked to the back gate along the slope to a plywood shack with the fertilizers and traps.  He dropped some fitting into a cardboard box and walked the dirt road way back around the fruit trees and the garden to the barn and set the box down at the workbench, feigning to tinker with the parts.
Perkins slammed the truck door.  Hey, he said.  I tried to call earlier, no one picked up.  My wife said you were up at your place all day.  You know, we’ve got to keep checking the sprinklers up on the ridge—I can see dry spots from the road. 

Samuel said nothing, looking down at the dried mud crusted to a plastic piece in his hand.  Well, how are things going around here? Perkins said.  Is my wife around?

Perkins was divorcing his wife and they were rarely at the ranch together.  She would stay in the apartment over the barn while Perkins would be up on the coast property.  One arrived, one departed.  In the still of evening the woman would wander sobbing out amongst the trees, her cries echoing dissonantly with the occasional calls of coyotes running the roads for food, their howl for the scavenging and hers for the unsalvaged.  In the mornings he would find her in the garden.  Samuel remembered the way she had said, You’ll be good for him—you’ll learn.  This was when he had first come on.  Then Perkins rarely came out to the ranch and his wife hardly left.  She parked up the back road to the orchard out of sight from the main road, emerging from the apartment only when the workers arrived.  At the time, there were often flowers from the garden arranged in a vase in the office next to the phone.  Upbeat blues came day and night from the apartment.  He imagined the lavish life had been given to her and how quickly it had slipped away.

Some time had passed and Perkins’ wife had no been at the ranch.  Samuel was up early one day, pumping gasoline from the drumbarrel into the truck when she returned.  She parked the car and came straight over to him, appearing gaunt before him, her gray hair uncombed.  Her eyes watery and bloodshot and she wore the floralprint dress she always wore, but had lately become dingy and worn thin.  He remembered her in the same garment just recently, a garish hibiscus tucked behind one ear.  I need to get into the office, she said.  She claimed that a circuit was out in the apartment and she needed to get to the fuse box.
I’m sorry, but I cant do that, he said. 

But it’s our property.  If you dont open it, I’ll break the window.

Then I quit.  Samuel handed her the keys and started back up the driveway.  She asked the next morning when his last day would be and he didnt take her seriously because he worked for Perkins, not his wife.

The workers stood talking by their dustred vehicles and as he came down the drive their voices lowered, though a few men continued to speak.  The young whiteman before them correlated with Perkins.  As Samuel approached them he saw no commonality between he and the men that might have imagined was there.  Allí y allí, he said.  The men began loading the equipment, scarcely glancing in the direction he had pointed.  The crew parked the jeep off the orchard road partway up the ridge and he stopped, then tried to sneak the flatbed past their vehicle at an angle up along the hill.  The truck leaned unnaturally and he pulled his arm from the windowframe where it was rested. 
The capsizing movement of the vehicle then halted.  Several of the men came up from the orchard below and now pushed against the awkward angle of the truck, allowing Samuel to come back down the hill in reverse to the orchard road.  He came back down to the barn where he checked the oil and gas levels arched down over the engine compartment of the flatbed and avoiding eye contact with the crew leader where he unloaded crates from one of the other vehicles, sensing he understood all that happened up on the hill.

Several days later the workers finished harvesting, the last of the crates taken away and he found that he was alone on the ranch. 

The coffee crackled yet in its carafe when he came in from starting the mains.  He unlaced his boots and sat barefoot on the porch, listening to the far off calls of workers on a ranch somewhere down the canyon.  He tended to his work now in the most minimal sense, some of the orchard visibly drying.  At three oclock he went around and closed the mains.  He quickly backed the truck down the gravel driveway, hoping to avoid crossing paths with Perkins on the way out.  Beyond the lemon orchards two young workers walked along the road.  He stopped and with the swing of his arm gestured them to the bed of the truck.  He opened the sliding window and passed cans of beer back to them and they grinned and drank at him in the rearview mirror.  At the main road he let them out and they left their empty cans in the bed and continued walking.  Samuel relaxed with the tires rolling smoothly beneath him along the paved main road.  By the time he swung the truck into the familiar parking lot near the path to the beach, he no longer felt concern.  He braked over the fine sand blown over from the dunes.  The air warm and the lot empty save for a few cars.  From the beach in the distance the mechanical caws of seagulls.  He stepped along the path an outbuilding where a group of men drank beer and spoke loudly amongst themselves, watching him as he passed.

He dipped his entire body beneath the surface of the cool saltwater, surfaced and leveled his body facedown.  He swam and when he grew tired paddled in and dried off.  The men were still at the wall and he moved past them to the lot, trying to remember how many days had passed since he had spoken to anyone.

Samuel ate lunch at the kitchen table and when the phone rang he made no move to answer.  He poured some coffee and stood in the livingroom looking out the window to the orchard just beyond his yard, where the broad treeleaves bounced crazily in the wind.

The next day he filled the oil reservoir on the motorcycle when Perkins came down from the barn apartment.  He wore sandals, shorts and a t-shirt and held a paperplate with his breakfast, which had soaked through in moist spots.  I’ve just been checking lines, Samuel said.

That’s good.

You know, I could try and stay on.  Maybe I could move off the ranch and come up mornings.

Well, part of it is being here—keeping an eye on things.

And what about Mrs Perkins?

What about her?  

Samuel climbed the ladder to the top of the ridge watertank, stepping across to the trapdoor to check the water level.  The faroff rumble of a car came from a distance, periodically breaking through the trees and into the open along the road.  Mrs Perkins sped up to the barn and went in.  He strained to watch her, stumbling forward atop the tank and falling some distance down into the rock and Manzanita.
When he woke things moved slowly before him on a tilted axis.  He walked down the road and up to the trailer for a flashlight.  He went down to the barn and looked for the car.  He switched on the floodlight and looked in the barn window.  Mrs Perkins body hung from a rafter, swaying slowly like a dowser’s pendulum.  There was broken glass and flowers on the ground beside the telephone.  Stacked neatly on the desk were the unsigned papers that Perkins needed, that he might start another life without her.


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