Mining Town Sketches
by Gwynn Morgan
A Child’s Garden
Juanito was thin, an almost fragile-looking child, face and body sharpened by bones close to the surface. He would have resented being called a child, for he was almost twelve years old and thought himself nearly grown. He’d smoked stolen cigarettes, emptied the final drops of a good many discarded bottles and held his own in more than one neighborhood rumble for all his delicate appearance.
But he was a child, and looked it, especially this evening. A ragged shirt hung loosely on his bony frame and a pair of oversized Levis was gathered clumsily at his waist. Dirty toes peaked through holes in his ragged canvas shoes as he knelt in the back yard of one of the little stucco houses exactly like the others that bordered the steep and ill-paved street in Copper Glance, Arizona.
He was very absorbed in whatever he was doing. Conchita, full of big-sisterly disgust at his grubby appearance, stepped off the rickety back porch for a closer view. A crumpled tablespoon for a trowel, he carefully dug shallow furrows in the burnt earth, rows made crooked by rocks too big to move. He tried to soften the packed ground with water poured from an old wine bottle. Finally satisfied with his handiwork, he took a handful of wrinkled peas and corn grains out of his pocket and tucked them tenderly into the straggling rows. He poured the rest of the water along them before he stood, moving slowly, a bit stiffly from the long crouch.
“Santa Madre, Juanito,” Conchita said, her cross tone echoing that of their mother, “What loco thing are you doing now?”
He jumped at the sound of her voice, spun around to face her. For an instant, she saw the gentle pride in his eyes before it faded.
“I made a garden.” He folded thin arms defensively across his chest, stood with his feet apart, braced as if awaiting a blow. “Mr. Barkley gave me the seeds. We didn’t use them all in school. He’s going to give me some more tomorrow, different ones.” He must have seen the skepticism in her face. “Really, sis, I didn’t swipe them. He gave them to me and I’m going to make them grow.”
Although her short laugh expressed her cynicism, she didn’t say all the sarcastic things she could have said. It might be silly, but making a garden was better than hanging around the pool hall and tavern down the street or roaming with the gangs. It was never easy, but she tried to remember and be like the gentle side of the mother whose death had left her surrogate mother to her younger brothers and sisters, all six of them.
“Okay,” she said. “Now fill the wood box before Papa gets home.” The pungent scent of burning beans recalled her to the kitchen just as a familiar old pickup came rattling down the alley.
Strangely, the little garden grew. The fierce sun of the high desert beat down every day and drank up the water he poured over his plants every evening, but the garden grew. The corn sprouted, pea vines spread, radishes and carrots burst out of their adobe beds in fluffs of green. He whittled stakes for them from boards salvaged from the woodpile and proudly lifted the vines out of the dirt. The dog made a bed in the middle one hot day. When he surveyed the damage that evening, he almost cried but instead swore poisonously in both English and Spanish as he vowed to build a fence. He salvaged most of the plants and built a rough fence out of more firewood scraps and some rusty chicken wire. Conchita did not dare ask where the wire came from.
Finally just after school was out, his proud moment came. He brought in a handful of little pea pods and she cooked them for dinner. There were only a few peas for each of them and they were bitter. Papa ate his in one bite, drowned in hot sauce. Conchita nibbled a few and then offered Juanito the rest because he was always hungry. She caught six year old Pancho with his mouth open to complain and silenced him with a look. She pretended not to notice when Pancho slipped his peas to the dog.
June grew hot, heavily, painfully hot. Tempers grew short and people got careless. By day Copper Glance lay eerily quiet under the heat but by night it buzzed with a hectic empty gaiety. Everyone tried to ignore the overhanging sense of dread, the pall that settled over town like a heavy woolen blanket. The shrill scream of the accident siren at the mine and the wailing ambulances accented both the noise and the quiet.
Although the Company began to ration water, Juanito always managed to scrounge a bottle or two for his garden. The carrots and lettuce were growing and tiny ears had appeared on the corn.
Papa worked graveyard shift now, midnight to eight, and tried to sleep mornings before it got too hot. Conchita struggled to keep the kids quiet, but it was futile, almost impossible. Rosa, the baby, was cutting teeth, whiny and cross. The twins fought constantly and Juanito disappeared as soon as he had breakfast. Papa never complained, but his face grew sharp and sagging with weariness. Conchita packed him a good lunch every night, not knowing what else to do. Each night when she got ready for bed, she prayed the summer rains would soon come to ease the drought and everyone’s suffering.
It seemed the boys could think of nothing but baseball. Ten year old Manny and Juanito both played in Little League. Manny was shortstop for his team and while Juanito was a pitcher. Pancho was a catcher in his T-ball team. That meant a game for one or more of them almost every night. Conchita always went, usually with Rosa on her hip. At least it was somewhere to go and gave her a chance to see some of the crowd she’d known in high school before Mama died and she dropped out. It always seemed harder when she got back home, though. Her old friends were giggling about boys and the weekend dances at Catholic Youth Fellowship while she at fifteen was saddled with a woman’s responsibilities.
The late June night was still, hot, without even the usual breeze drifting down the canyon to cool the leaden air. Even the weight of a single sheet was too stickily oppressive to bear. Conchita lay on her cot, one of Papa’s old undershirts as a nightgown, staring out the window at the black sky, dotted with a few stars. The younger children slept restlessly, muttering and tossing in their beds.
When the siren came, it cut through the children’s restless slumber with merciless clarity, somehow personal and demanding. She lay taut, scarcely breathing. Juanito padded noiselessly to her bedside. Together they counted the bursts of sound.
“It’s on the five hundred foot level,” he whispered. She didn’t need to answer. They both know Papa was working there. It was almost dawn when the men finally came to tell them what they already knew.
Afterwards, it was all a blur of flowers, tears and black, of hastily packing possessions that didn’t even fill the pickup. The sudden shock of belonging to Aunt Lola’s household was the hardest part. A big busy woman, Tia Lolita seemed cold, and they hardly knew her. She and her husband Diego lived in another camp, on the other side of the mountains.
Reality did not come fully to Conchita until the final morning. As if in a daze, she watched Juanito pour a final bottle of water down the parched furrows of the neglected garden. When the jug was empty, he dashed it against a rock. The shards glittered like tears in the harsh sunlight. Then it was he who took her hand and without looking back led her out of the yard to Tia Lolita’s car where the younger children already waited. Later, thinking back on that day, she realized that was the moment Juanito stopped being a child.