DAY was at morn and the year at the spring, and all along the levee that paralleled the loo-low Sacramento violent swirls of dust rose and wrestled with Jesus. A strong north wind had come up in the night to whip the river and the dry fields beyond, where peas and beets and asparagus thirsted. In his bare feet, Jesus scuffled up the white powdery dust, abetting its fury, bucking his head to the wind and rubbing his eyes. They smarted. He rubbed harder and kicked harder in the dirt. Just around the next corner was the little schoolhouse toward which he was making his none-too-eager way, and where ‘Ticher’ sighed heavily every time she looked at him.
Ticher was small, fair, and firm, and filled with an incredible zeal for action. You no sooner got one task done than she had two others ready for you. Nor would she leave you at peace in the performance thereof. You must hold the chalk in your right hand and you must make one letter (always the first) bigger than any of those that followed. You must write on the lines and you must not chew the end of your pencil. You must not wipe your nose on your sleeve (for this she had pretty little soft pink papers in a box on her desk) and you must not spit on the blackboard even if there wasn’t an eraser handy. You must not put down the answers to problems unless you had looked at the other numbers first.
She wanted everything to be just right, but she still had a little difficulty with his name. When he had come to this school a few months ago, along with Mary and Lupe and Conchita and Salvador and Ramon and Elvira and Concepcion, and had handed her his report card, she had given a little squeal and had said in a voice as if she were afraid, ‘Gee-sus! But you can’t be called that! Why, that’s terrible! Why, the idea!’
He had been patient with her as he had had to be with other teachers about this. He had told her over and over again that he was not ‘Gee-sus’ but ‘Hay-soos.’ She had considered him levelly through puzzled blue eyes for a long, uncomfortable moment before she said, ‘Very well, Hay-soos.’
He was late again — only a little, but still late. The children were gathered in a circle about the flagpole in the yard, with their hands held stiffly at their foreheads in the quaint morning exercise they did first of all every day. He slipped unobtrusively between two of them, whipped off his hat, and clamped it between his legs before he joined them in the chant: ‘ I pledge a legion to the flag of the United Stakes of America and to the republic for Richard Strand; one naked individual with liberty and justice for all.’
There was a Richard Schmaltz in the school. Jesus wondered vaguely who Richard Strand was. He tried to slink past Ticher, who waylaid him in the doorway.
‘Good morning, Jesus. I’ve already said it to all the other boys and girls, but you, of course, are late again. What’s the matter with your eyes?’
He had been rubbing the dust out of them again.
‘I don’t know, Ticher.’
‘Look at me. Jesus, you haven’t the pink eye, have you? They look awfully red. Tell me this minute, have you the pink eye?’
‘Maybe,’ he said hopefully. ‘Yes, I think so. Always we have lots of pink eyes in our family.’
‘You go straight back home,’ said Ticher, as excited as she always was. There was no rest in the woman. ‘I’ll send the school nurse later.’
Jesus sped away with greater alacrity than he had come, albeit his spirit was a bit dampened by the reference to the school nurse. He dawdled the happy day away there on the riverbank, skipping rocks in the water, ambushing a ground squirrel, idly watching the activity of a dredger. At noon he allayed a faint inner gnawing with an orange he had picked up in flight. It had been just sitting there alongside one of the tin buckets in the row on the schoolhouse porch. Nobody had been with it, so it was his by right of discovery.
The school nurse, a large matter-offact woman, as calm as Ticher was excitable, was completely unimpressed by his asserting that there were always many pink eyes in his family, and, after examination, ordered him back to school next day.
‘But I cannot go, señorita. See, I have no shoes. I am barefoot. Nobody else is barefoot. I am ashame.’
‘ Verdad,’ his large soft mother confirmed him. ‘ No tiene zapatos.’ She laid a loving hand upon her son’s head and smiled upon him tenderly, as though his having no shoes were some peculiar virtue of which she was particularly proud. She drew him to her fondly, jostling the babe at her bosom so that it lost its tenacious hold and nuzzled and whimpered complainingly. Jesus noted how much whiter was the nipple it released than any other visible part of his parent’s body. The rest of her was the dull gray color of the levee. He pulled himself out of her caress.
‘No shoes. See, my mother says so!’
But the nurse was prepared for that. He was appalled at her next action. She took a large grocery box filled with shoes from the back of her car and spent an enervating twenty minutes pulling footgear on and off Jesus’ unwilling grimy feet. Jesus himself was singularly uninterested in all this. He reclined limply against the doorjamb, quite unable, it seemed, to brace himself or even to stiffen his knee joints against the onslaught. The nurse began to show signs of annoyance.
‘Straighten up here, boy,’ she commanded.
‘I cannot, señorita. The pain I suffer in my knee! Think of it!’
At length she was satisfied, and Jesus was the not-too-happy possessor of an almost new pair of plain black shoes.
‘There. Now you have shoes. And there’s nothing the matter with your eyes, either. You be at school tomorrow — and on time.’
‘Good boy,’ said his mother sweetly, meaning to commend not her son but the nurse, who was pouring a solution out of a small bottle on to her hands with something of the air of one who was shaking the dust of a place off his feet.
At length the woman was gone, and Jesus and his mother contemplated the new shoes through melancholy dark eyes. Came, too, Lupe and Mary and Conchita and Salvador and Ramon and Elvira and Concepcion, who, until now, had stayed at a safe distance lest they, too, be fitted to shoes. Came from somewhere his father and his elder brother Manuel, and they all looked solemnly at the feet of Jesus, fettered by the hand of authority against the delights of springtime.
There was no help for it: he and the shoes must go to school. He would carry them, however, until he came within actual sight of the schoolhouse. Stopping to put them on delayed him so that he was a little late. The last of the children, including his own brothers and sisters, had filed into the room, and he was forced to make a lone and conspicuous entry. Ticher leapt upon her prey.
‘Jesus, this simply will not do. This is the fourth time you have been late this week. Now why can’t you be less shiftless and get up early? Why can’t you do as the others do and get here on time?’
Jesus put his hand on his heart.
‘It was a little bird, señorita.’
‘A little bird?’
‘It had fallen from its nest and crying so. I had to put it back.’
Ticker’s eyes softened behind the dark-rimmed glasses.
‘Well — but you should start early enough to allow for emergencies. Take out your reader.’
Jesus took out his reader, a primer devoted to large gay pictures and sprightly though monotonous comment anent the doings of Jackie and Janey. It seemed utterly unimportant to Jesus, big boy that he was, that Jackie and Janey liked to go down the ‘slicky slide.’ In sheer boredom he cut a large half-moon in the top of his desk. He was relieved when Ticher announced that the time had come for folk dancing. Along with the other big boys, he pretended to scorn this part of the program and had to be dragged from corners to participate, but secretly his soul delighted in the seductive rhythms. As always, he was paired with Reiko Nasamura, because she, of all those present, did not seem to mind being his partner. The phonograph whined its way to top speed and the dance was begun. The spectacle of a Mexican boy and a Japanese girl solemnly tramping their way through a Swedish polka seemed no more ludicrous to Jesus than it did to Ticher.
Presently there was another dance whose dominant feature was a frequent change of partners. At long last, Jesus came abreast of a pert little goldenhaired creature in a stiff pink dress. She looked like the angels in Elvira’s book. Jesus had long looked upon her with eyes of devotion. He made a more than usually courtly bow and reached for her hand. She slapped him away with a furious ‘Don’t you dare touch me, you old — you old — thing, you!’
Ticher interfered here with heavyhanded diplomacy, and the physicaleducation period was declared over. But the boy’s troubles were not. Yet another very clean little girl who sat behind him presently tiptoed to the desk and ostentatiously whispered in Ticker’s ear. Ticher looked startled and requested the presence of Jesus in the anteroom. There, with squeamish fingers, she explored his dark, rebellious head. She sent him home.
The school nurse came again that night, to be welcomed with happy anticipation by Jesus’ mother, whose dull days were lightened by these frequent visitations. Jesus felt resentment stir in his soul as the woman took firm hold on his head and afterwards on those of Mary and Lupe and Conchita and Salvador and Ramon and Elvira and Concepcion, all of whom had formed a disconsolate home-coming queue behind him that afternoon. What was there about this to cause such a fuss? A few little creatures in the head! They did not hurt anybody — itched a little sometimes, but one or the other or all of the young Aranyos had always had them and been quite comfortable about it.
The sensitive soul of Jesus shrank within him. Somehow, he had gained ill repute with his fellows because of this affair of the head. He would stay at home a few days so that they would miss him.
Evidently they did miss him, for at the end of the third day a neighbor stopped in to say that Ticher had declared she wanted him back at school again and that nothing, nothing was to keep him away. He was pleased. They had done wrong and they were sorry. Jesus was not one to harbor a grudge. With him, bygones were always bygones.
Carrying his new shoes, he set out next morning for school only a halfhour behind his brothers and sisters and filled anew with loving-kindness. But he was delayed by this and that en route, and when he entered, cringing a little, a group of boys and girls were already at their social studies. Just as he entered, Ticher was saying something about the Aztecs. Her eye pounced upon him.
‘Jesus can probably tell us,’ she said to the others. ‘He may have heard his parents or his grandparents speak of them. Jesus, what do you know about the Aztecs?’
He flinched away from the implied accusation. A moment ago he had been happy; now he was sad again, threatened and suspected.
‘Nothing, señorita,’ he said. ‘I do not have them any more now.’
The children shouted with laughter. He crimsoned.
‘Oh, Jesus, you don’t have them,’ said Ticher sharply. ‘Do you know anything about them? It’s people.’
‘ I do not know them or have anything to do with them.’
Ticher shook her head and said ‘Tck, tck,’ as she so often did when he answered her questions.
The day, so inauspiciously begun, did not go well. Even Reiko Nasamura avoided him and a cloud fell upon his spirit. At noon he and his brothers and sisters huddled together in an ell of the building the while other boys and girls in groups of two and three and five ate their luncheons, talking and laughing with mouths too full, gayly swapping sandwiches. The young Aranyos never brought lunch. This was a source of disturbance to Ticher, who liked to know reasons for everything. Often she reproved Jesus and Mary and Lupe and Conchita and Salvador and Ramon and Elvira and Concepcion, who, wounded, backed up against the schoolhouse wall with their flat stomachs, melancholy dark eyes, and apologetic mannerisms. Didn’t they know they needed nourishment?
Did they forget their lunches?
Would one of them like this nice ham sandwich? This piece of chocolate cake?
No, thank you, Ticher.
What did their mother have to say for herself about this lunch situation?
Ticher said she would find out about this. Jesus had no doubt she would. He was wearied of this talk about food every noontime. He would stay at home a few days. Perhaps it would all be forgotten then and again they would be sorry he was gone and send for him to come back.
But that sad day had its happy ending, for when the children arrived at home, hours after leaving the mile-away school building, their mother beckoned them into the one room where all the Aranyos did their collective living, and invited them to behold. Their father was there, and Manuel and the four who were yet too young to go to school. In the centre of the room that was guiltless of other furnishings stood the white, gleaming electric refrigerator they had all talked about for so long — theirs at last. A man came sometimes and gave his father a piece of paper which his father turned into things like flour and corn meal and gasoline and a guitar. The man said something about ‘relief,’ and Jesus dimly understood that the Aranyos had a benevolent godfather somewhere who paid his father for not doing things his father would not have done anyhow. The refrigerator was somehow a gift from that man.
They were all admiringly exclamatory. Their mother laughed happily and slammed the door over and over again, and at length brought forth a bowl of frijoles which she set solemnly in the very centre of the lowest shelf. Manuel showed how he had connected the machine to the little wires that had been in the small house when they came there. The man had said that would keep it always cold.
Jesus, for a joke, stuck his head inside and shut the door as far as it would go and said that it was cold. They all laughed. His father ran a caressing hand over the gleaming white surface of their new treasure. Jesus did likewise, his hand lingering in pleasure at the smoothness and the coolness of it. All the little ones stroked it tenderly. His mother even unhooked the baby from her bosom to smack its limp dirty little hand upon the pretty thing.
Jesus was sated with happiness. He wandered out into the starlight to sit in the tomato patch, where he thought how fortunate they all were to come into possession of this splendid cold thing. Down in Mexico when he was very little they had never . . . This was a good place. He ate a half-dozen greenish tomatoes and repaired to the house, where he lay down on the floor between Manuel and Mary, pulling a convenient gunny sack around his shoulders as preparation for the night.
They stayed at home next day to admire the new refrigerator. They did not mention this as the reason for not going to school. But when they had all risen and eaten from the bowl of beans that had chilled all night, and when the upward sweep of the sun heralded the probable hour of departure for school, good little Concepcion discovered a stomach-ache.
‘Concepcion must not go to school, then,’ said Mary, speaking with the firmness becoming in the eldest daughter. ‘And I, too, shall stay at home with her. Maybe, some way, I can help her.’
‘And I,’ said Jesus. ‘I feel a stomachache, too. How it aches me! Think of it!’
Salvador and Ramon now discovered twinges, and all the others decided to stay at home to sympathize with those who were afflicted. Their large soft mother approved. This was kindness they were showing to one another. They could always go to school, and tomorrow was another day. She blessed them. They strolled out of doors, where they partook of early tomatoes and lolled in the dirt beside the door bound to one another by ties of love.
Late afternoon brought a new lady, an authoritative lady who did not smile and who wanted to know in clear ringing tones what was the meaning of all this truancy. Manuel and his father had disappeared; his mother beamed and murmured ‘Good boy, good boy’ repeatedly in welcome to the stranger. Jesus saw that he must take charge.
‘My stomach, señora,’ he began. ‘Or no, it was the stomach of my sister Concepcion. Or was it Ramon? Anyhow, we are sick. We have stomach-ache very bad. Think of it!’
‘Who has stomach-ache?’
‘All of us,’ said Jesus, proud of their unity.
‘Nonsense,’ said the lady. ‘You can’t all have stomach-ache. That is, unless you’ve eaten something . . . By the way, what did you have to eat today?’
‘Frijoles,’ said Mary.
‘Beans,’ corrected Jesus.
‘Cold,’ supplemented little Conchita.
‘Good,’ said Concepcion.
The lady said ‘Tck, tck,’ peered into their new refrigerator, and turned to their mother.
A lively debate then ensued, with the Aranyos taking the affirmative side of the question, that cold beans were of all things the most to be preferred for the building of bodily strength and beauty.
The lady, having got off to a good start on the subject of food, was loath to leave it. She mentioned accusingly the fact that the children brought no lunch to school.
‘We have nothing to bring, señora,’ Jesus defended them. ‘Only tortillas. We are poor people. And the other children laugh at tortillas. That makes us ashame. Think of it! No, we will not bring tortillas to school. We will not have lunch.’
The lady averred that tortillas made a highly desirable luncheon as over against nothing at all. The young Aranyos looked doubtful, even when assured that henceforth the other children would not laugh. When the assurance was passed on to their mother through Jesus, she too looked doubtful. Jesus knew it was a good deal of trouble to put up lunches for so many, and since nobody ever got really hungry at noon, there was no sense in it. He knew how his mother felt about it and he did not blame her. He knew, too, how obdurate she could be. She was going to be that way now. He waited, admiring, for the demonstration.
It came. Mamacita gave forth a regular pyrotechnical display of staccato ‘Nos,’ calling upon the Virgin to witness that she would never burden her dear children with packages that they must carry all that long way to school! Never!
Jesus interpreted, and the lady was angry.
‘Now this has gone far enough. These children have been out of school for every conceivable reason, good, bad, and indifferent. The law requires them to attend. If they do not attend we shall have to hold the parents responsible. On the occasion of the very next absence we shall have to take Mr. Aranyo into court
— maybe into jail. Jail! Do you understand, Jesus? Tell your mother what I say.’
Jesus told his mother. At the end of two minutes of lively oratory he announced to the lady, ‘She says “All right.”’
‘All right! All right what? All right to put your father in jail?’
The lady went away, the very bounce of her car as it leapt into low gear expressing her exasperation.
Their father did go to jail, for the community stomach-ache of the young Aranyos continued for another week, and, though the school doctor pronounced it mythical, they felt a vast disinclination for education and clung to their vague symptoms. Señor Aranyo rode away stoically enough with the big man who came for him, resplendent in the bright green shirt that Mary had risen early to iron for the occasion. They watched the car out of sight, each volubly disapproving, They missed their father, of course, but Jesus noticed during this time that his mother wore a relaxed look he had never seen on her face before.
And then in a few days the family was reunited. They had a brave supper of peppers and beans and tomatoes that night and they all sat down at once the while they listened to the wonderful experiences the father recounted. He had met an old friend in the jail, a man he had not seen since happy days in Guadalajara, and they had enjoyed much speaking together. Another fine fellow — detained because he had merely held a hot iron against his wife’s cheek because she lied to him — had lent him a guitar, and their evenings had been pleasant with music. There had been coffee and good stew. As a crowning touch the father had won $2.60 in a game of chance.
As proof of this, he placed $1.90 on the table to delight their eyes. Haltingly Jesus, who could count, called attention to the discrepancy between story and cash in hand. But yes, the father had bought a little medicine, of a kind he much liked and often wanted. Reaching into his hip pocket he brought forth a bottle of ‘ Vegetable Compound.’ Each took a long sip and rejoiced with him.
Probably it was not necessary to go to school now. Their father had expiated their sin in staying away by going to jail. The lady had given them their choice: school or jail. They had chosen the latter. Feeling singularly carefree and absolved, Jesus spent a long delicious day idling along the riverbank. He shouted encouragement to the engineers aboard Uncle Sam’s dredger, busy deepening the channel. He caught three fish and thought how beautiful they would look all alone in the big refrigerator. He picked an armful of pussywillow for Ticher just in case he ever should go back to school again. He lay on his back watching the clouds until the rhythm of their passing lulled him to sleep.
It was almost dark when he arrived home, and his mother, strangely enough, wanted some kindling wood. It was seldom she cooked, and yet more seldom that she made demands upon her children, but to-night she said the two older boys must chop wood and bring it into the house.
Manuel, lolling in the doorway with a cigarette, declined the menial task, delegating it to Jesus. Jesus, a little chilled and irritable from his long nap in the sand, would have none of it. If it was not a manly task for Manuel, it was not a manly task for him. The brothers argued about this, their words waxing hotter. Manuel struck Jesus and the two clinched, stumbled, and rolled to the ground, where they bit and clawed and pummeled each other. The younger children stood, an interested semicircle, at a safe distance.
But the mother did not like to see her sons engaged in this unbrotherly conflict. She did have one stout stick of wood, and when she saw Jesus reach for the small hunting knife he always carried she sprang into the fray, the baby at her breast bouncing and wailing at being thus unceremoniously detached from sustenance, and lay about her impartially and with surprising vigor. A sharp whack on the knuckles sent the knife slithering away out of the reach of Jesus. But Manuel fared worse. His mother brought the stick, through which a long nail had been driven, smartly down upon his forehead so that an ugly jagged tear appeared and blood spurted between his eyes.
Through surprise, hurt, and shock, Manuel appeared to have given up the ghost. He rolled over on his side and lay very still, his eyes shut. Jesus gallantly withdrew and stood, panting, over his fallen brother. Their mother remembered to deposit the baby carefully upon a soft pile of manure before she dropped to her knees beside her firstborn, weeping loudly and wiping his bloody face with her skirt.
This was the unhappy moment chosen by the fates for a visit from the lady who thought people should go to school or to jail. From the knife (which Jesus had forgotten to retrieve), from the bloody wound, from the loud wails of the mother, she pieced together her own story.
She went away from there quickly, and in less than an hour Jesus found himself in rough masculine hands en route to the Detention Home, while Manuel lay for the first time in his life between sheets in the county hospital.
Jesus stayed a whole week in the Detention Home, during which time he would not remove his hat, excepting just once during those few shocking moments when the big man made him wash himself all over. When they had locked him in at night he slept on the floor, eschewing the white iron bed and its soft covers.
He heard himself described as ‘incorrigible,’ whatever that might mean. He had knifed his own brother (they said), and he would not go to school. They did not seem to know that it was his mother who, with her stick of wood and amazingly strong arm, had inflicted the damage upon Manuel, and he was not the one to tell them. He admired Mamacita. He would keep silent.
He was outraged at the accusation that he would not go to school. Gregarious, he loved school, but they were so fussy there, insisting upon shoes and lunches, disapproving his gallantry to the girls, suspecting him of being in league with some strange family called the Aztecs when he had never even seen the people, being intolerant about little things in his hair, never liking the numbers he put down for answers even when he filled a whole sheet of paper on both sides. So he would not go to school! Why, he had been sent home more times than he could remember.
For the first time he began now to feel sullen and resentful as he gazed around the room at the half-dozen grave strangers who had come to question or accuse him. His parents were there, his mother not understanding one word but smiling and nodding at intervals, his father not disposed to interfere in what was obviously his son’s own affair. Neither spoke a word during the hearing.
Ticher was there, too, looking strangely disturbed and inclined to disagree with all the other people. At length she came and stood beside him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said good words about him to these others, much better words than she had ever used to him in the schoolroom. She smelled very nice. Suddenly he liked her very much. He did not know that Ticher had got the true story of the affair of the brothers from little loose-tongued Lupe, and that, ever a lover of justice and chivalry, she was according him a new respect. She wanted him to be set free. She said so.
‘And furthermore,’ the big man was saying, ‘unless you take better care of these children, Mrs. Aranyo,’ — he shook an admonishing finger at her, — ‘I’m greatly afraid someone will come and take some of them away from you!’
‘Good boy,’ said his mother, aware of nothing but her name and the fingerwagging.
Jesus interpreted, and there ensued a lively bit of oratory,
‘What does she say?’ the stern man asked at length.
‘She says all right. She don’t care. She got too many kids anyhow. How many you take?’ said Jesus.
Ticher laughed. She looked very pretty with all her white teeth showing and her blue eyes dancing with new lights. Everyone else was stricken dumb. Ticher’s laughter was pleasant in that gloomy room. He liked her even more.
Jesus was given over to his parents with orders to behave himself in future. That was easy to promise. He always behaved himself. His father stalked majestically from the room. His mother lingered behind to smile a good-bye on each person present, not bothering to detach the greedily sucking youngest Aranyo from her drooping bosom.
Back at home Manuel, a once-white bandage around his head, grinned welcome to Jesus and offered him a cigarette. It was the first time Jesus had ever got a cigarette from Manuel without prolonged bargaining, though he had been smoking since he was eight. The brothers leaned against the side of the building and smoked together in silent camaraderie.
It had been a good day. Ticher had laughed and he was free again and here was good tobacco. Reflecting, he rubbed a hand along his jawbone and across his upper lip. Strong black hairs resisted his touch. His heart leapt. Maybe, when they worked in the beets this summer, his father would let him keep enough of his money to buy a razor. Maybe!
He went to school happily next day and was only twenty minutes late. He showed Ticher the black hairs on his lip and she said yes, indeed, that was very nice. She let him pass the wastebasket and at noon said nothing at all about lunch.
Returned home, he found his mother moving listlessly along the rows in the tomato patch. She seemed thoughtful. Waiting for her to speak, he squatted on the ground and bit into a none-too-ripe tomato. At length she wondered, a shade wistfully, if the big man who had shouted so yesterday would take Tita and Rosa and Miguel and Jose (who were all too young to pick fruit or top beets anyhow) and keep them for a while as he had suggested. Not for always, she hastened to add, for she loved her children, but just until they got big enough to earn a little money, for it was necessary to feed the body that the soul might live, no?
Jesus, new in wisdom, patted her soft arm. ‘The big man does not want the little ones, Mamacita. No, we will keep all of them, and by and by they will go to school with me. School is a nice place now. I passed the wastebasket today, and tomorrow — if I am not late — I will run up the flag on its pole. Everybody will see me do it. Think of it!’
His mother’s face relaxed. Pleased that her son had won recognition at last, she tore the baby firmly from her person, deposited it on the ground, and embraced Jesus.
‘Good boy,’ she said.