J. K. Colvin (M.B.A., Pepperdine U) is a retired Coast Guard officer living in the California Sierra foothills and writing full-time. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize (1995-96) and awarded first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference Writing Contest, he has also published in the ACORN, Explorations and Shooting Star Review.
On my fourth birthday my mother and I stood in front of the Farm Workers' Family Clinic in West Sacramento and watched Nurse Flannery tie Biba, my pacifier, to three balloons—green, white, and red. When Nurse Flannery released the balloons my mother said, "Say good-bye to Biba, Rafa. Biba's going to heaven." I watched Biba float into a green sky with pink clouds and orange birds that circled the balloons and in Spanish sang "Happy birthday to Rafa." Biba rose higher and higher, above the birds, above the pink clouds, deeper into the green sky until it was swallowed by a yellow sun with a blue corona. I remember this all very clearly. I remember feeling like a big boy because I didn't need Biba anymore.
When I was young the sky and clouds and trees and sun changed colors, or made sounds like music or laughter or angels or water in an irrigation ditch. When my mother talked I could taste her words: chocolate sweet, ice cream smooth, or salsa sharp. When my father sang, his words had color and taste. I could sit on the porch and eat his songs, and see them as they drifted out the open door of our shack, across the camp, through the windows of old Chevys and Ford pickups, up into the branches of almond trees and peach trees, up into a purple sky with pink stars and a moon that looked like a half-eaten tortilla. If I opened my mouth a song could float in like a marshmallow and melt on my tongue.
When I was older my mother told me it was Nurse Flannery's idea to break me of the pacifier. Nurse Flannery explained to me that Biba was very tired and wanted to go to heaven. She said we would have a party on my birthday, and Biba would fly up into the sky with balloons and ribbons.
My mother, Clara Corrales, tells me I didn't cry when Biba went to heaven. She says I stood on the grass and watched Biba sail away until he was like a crumb in the sky. When I ask why my father wasn't at my party, she says, "He was in the fields." My father was always in the fields: grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, cherries, sometimes artichokes and Brussels sprouts and broccoli. All the seasons, all the fruits and vegetables that grew in the Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento Valley, along the coast in Castroville and Watsonville, and in King City and Gonzales and Chowchilla and Fresno and Bakersfield and sometimes Redding and Yuba City and Gridley. We followed him from camp to camp, sharing rooms with
friends and cousins, newcomers from Tijuana and Nogales and Hermosillo and Los Mochis, even from Guadalajara and Mexico City and Monterrey. Newcomers who didn't speak English, who came at night in the back of a truck and tiptoed into our shack and slept on the floor under the kitchen table or next to the stove, or on warm nights on the porch or under the almond trees. Newcomers who bathed and washed their clothes in the ditches, who smiled and laughed and said "Buenos días" in the morning. Newcomers who sang in reds and yellows and greens; songs I could see and hear, and sometimes feel and taste. Hot jalapeño songs of Mexico and the mountains and sunsets and beaches, and sweet nectarine songs of going home to wives and children and mothers.
When I was old enough, I joined my mother and father and cousins in the fields. Whenever we were near Sacramento, my mother took me to the Farm Workers' Clinic. Nurse Flannery weighed me and measured me and gave me a vaccination and asked my mother how she was feeling and was she taking the pills and was she being careful. My mother would blush and nod and whisper, "Sí, Señora Flannery." Then Nurse Flannery would give me a Snickers Bar and tell me I was growing up so fast.
I attended school wherever we happened to be picking. After school I went to the fields. We worked until sunset, bent over beans or onions, reaching up for cherries or pears. My mother, with a bandanna tied around her neck to block the sun, would ask me what I learned that day. I told her about the parts of a sentence and long division and the Civil War and the Oregon Trail and the nitrogen cycle and Sputnik. My father listened and would say I must go to college, that I must become a lawyer and make much money and live in a city where there are no fields. Where fruit and vegetables are found only in stores with air conditioning and glass walls and automatic doors. And I should not call myself Rafa or Raphael; I should be Mr. Ralph Corrales, Jr. He said when that happened he would come to live with me and watch television all day and drink plenty of cold beer and play bingo on Friday night.
And so it happened. I graduated from Esparto High School and went to Cal State Sacramento. I graduated fourth in my law school class at Santa Clara University, went to work for a law firm in Sacramento, became a partner and made much money. I was Mr. Ralph Corrales, Jr., Esquire. I married an Anglo woman with blue eyes, had three children, bought my fruit and vegetables in Safeway and built a guest cottage so my parents could live with us. My father watched television all day, drank Budweiser and played bingo on Wednesday and Friday nights at St. Philomene's Parish Hall. My mother, with a bandanna around her neck, planted a garden and raised peppers and tomatoes and cilantro and corn and watermelon and spoiled her grandchildren and taught them Spanish and told them stories about the fields and Mexico and shacks with no water or electricity or toilets or heat or screens on the windows. She told them about cousins and great aunts and visions in the sky and messages from ancestors and about the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy.
When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's we put him in the Gold River Long-Term Care Facility. He also had diabetes and early signs of Parkinson's disease. They took away his beer and ice cream and told him he must not eat chocolate. The circulation in his legs was so bad he couldn't feel his feet. He fell so often the nurses insisted he be put in a wheel chair.
Putting my father in a wheel chair accelerated whatever was unraveling in his body. His legs and arms lost their muscles. His back and shoulders curved into a C, so that it looked like he had bowed his head to pray. His hearing and vision began to fail, and he spoke more Spanish and less English. One Sunday, as I was leaving his room, he called to me in Spanish, "Rafa, come close." Yes, Papa. "For my birthday in two weeks I want new shoes. Michael Jordan shoes. You bring me those, and some ice cream. Chocolate. For my birthday; you understand?" Yes, Papa.
On the way home my mother asked me what he had said. I told her he wanted new shoes. I said, He can't walk, why does he want new shoes? "He saw them on TV and wants them. It's for his birthday, for his seventy-fifth." It's crazy, he won't remember. I bet by next week he forgets the shoes.
But the next Sunday my father said, "Rafa, you remember about the shoes?" Yes, Papa. "Good. You bring them, and the ice cream, too. We'll have a fiesta on the patio, bring the niños." Yes, Papa.
And so on my father's seventy-fifth birthday, my mother, my wife, my two sons and my daughter went to the Gold River Long-Term Care Facility. We brought chocolate ice cream, balloons, crepe paper, silly hats and a new pair of Air Jordans. Nurse Salamone met us in the lobby, "Señor Corrales is having a bad day. I don't know if he'll know you or not. Physically he's no worse, but his mind is going. He's on the patio; he's been looking up at the sky and talking to himself. I'll take you to him."
She led us through the lobby to a game room with sliding glass doors that opened onto a patio shaded by apple trees and almond trees and cherry trees. My father was alone. "There he is," she said. We stood on one side of the glass doors and watched my father on the other side. He was pointing up to the sky, his eyes were wide and tears rolled down his unshaved cheeks. I leaned forward and looked to where my father pointed. I saw three balloons, green, white, and red, floating down from a green sky. Colored ribbons waved from something that swung beneath the balloons. The balloons settled slowly below the clouds and birds and the tree tops. The bark on the fruit trees around the patio unfurled in Maypole streamers of orange and turquoise and purple. I pushed open the sliding doors and went out to stand behind my father. I heard the birds singing in Spanish, "Happy birthday to Rafa." I heard my father calling, "Rafa, Rafa." The balloons came closer, carrying something beneath them. I felt the sun and air and the green sky all around me. I heard the cherry trees laughing with the almond and apple trees. I heard the sound of water, I tasted cinnamon in the air, I felt the breath of Jesus in my face.
My father half rose in his wheel chair, reaching for the balloons that hung like apples just above his head. There was the cold ice cream in my hands. The Air Jordans: San Miguel. My father saying, "Biba, Biba, Biba."