MartinBy Nick C. Vaca
Late Autumn in Tracy was always a frightening experience for me. The west winds blowing from San Francisco would raise the dust from the surrounding harvested farm fields and a brown-sheet of dust would settle over Tracy. The clear blue skies of summer would begrudgingly accept the gray clouds of autumn, and I knew that the bitter cold and damp fog of the San Joaquin Valley winter would soon descend upon us. The winds would dance and the setting sun would become a crimson red — a crimson red that filled the entire west skies, and I, in my fertile and imaginative youth, believed that the world would soon end. The fact that mornings would follow such horrible evenings never dispelled my belief that the world would be consumed by a fiery hell with a red sky as its herald. I made a promise to myself that I would never play outside when such a red sky predicted the death of the world. So awesome was the nature of these skies that I broke this solemn promise only once in my entire youth.
When my thoughts were not occupied with the destruction of the world, my days were spent in idle playtime. My playmates were never outside my family, and they were usually limited to Catarino, my older brother, and Vicente, my cousin. It was not that I disliked any of the other children in the neighborhood, but our family was so large that I never had any reason to go outside of it for friends. Besides, the three of us seldom fought and I saw no reason to upset our tranquil relationship. But, though we never played with the other children in the neighborhood, we were nevertheless well acquainted and on good terms with them. We would roam our neighborhood, challenge kids to a quick and vicious game of marbles, defeat them, and then move on to other parts of the neighborhood in search of further conquest. The houses in which we, the dirty, brown children of our part of town, lived would have been rustic had it not been for the misery that permeated them. They were usually constructed by the owners with lumber that did not always meet exact dimensions or was rarely of a uniform type. The houses, I thought, sagged more from the weight of the sorrow from within than from the lack of adequate construction. There were no sidewalks, just extended front yards that fused with the dust of the road.
The bizarre construction of the houses and the haphazard location of the lots provided many alleys that afforded us private areas of play. It was usually in these alleys that we would spend most of our playtime during the summer and late autumn months, playing marbles, cars, or whatever our combined imaginations happened to produce.
One late afternoon, during a lull in our activities, we became aware of an intrusion in our neighborhood. As the sun was shedding its final shafts of light and the west wind was beginning its wicked dance making the dust race through the alleys, a small, dark woman stumbled into the alley where we were playing, stopped, cupped her leathery hands to her mouth and shouted into the wind, "Martin," and then shuffled away.
When we were sure that she was out of hearing range, Vicente began an analysis of her. Because her hair was drawn tightly from her forehead, braided and set atop her head so that they formed dikes, he concluded that she was from Mexico. Her eyes, set in deep sockets, her high cheek bones, dark, leathery skin and pure white teeth, further convinced Vicente that she had just arrived from Mexico. Her dress reached her ankles and her thinning red sweater had several holes and missing buttons. She had a small belly which she used as a resting place for her folded arms. From this observation, I added that she had had a lot of children. I knew this because my mother had the same type of belly and she had ten children.
After Vicente had completed his analysis of the woman, our thoughts turned to Martin. The name Martin fascinated us more than did the woman. We had never seen him before and largely because of this we delighted in imagining how he looked and in making rhymes with his name. The clarity and sharpness of the sound produced by pronouncing his name lent itself very nicely to many rhymes, but the one that we enjoyed the most was,
- "Martin el violin."
- "Martin el violin."
- "Martin el violin."
Yet for all our fantasies and vivid imaginations, none of us could really satisfactorily imagine how he looked — not until one afternoon when the wind from the west began its piercing song, and the convulsing dust covered rooftops and the west skies turned a crimson red. As I was ready to leave our back alley and flee the horror of the red sky, Martin appeared in the alley with a whirlwind of dust dancing about him. He was awfully small — much smaller than any of us had ever imagined him to be. And when I saw how thin he was, I thought to myself how very appropriate was the rhyme we had created. Not only was he small, but he was unbelievably skinny. Yet, strangely enough, right in the middle of this thin and frail body was an enormous belly, as huge as the basketball with which we played. It was his enormous belly that caused us to immediately dislike him. For us, a large belly meant that a person ate well — too well. When my mother would take us with her on one of her rare shopping trips into Stockton, we would walk down the sidewalks and enviously watch the men with their fat bellies and puffy cheeks and wish that we could, just for once in our lives, eat as much as we wanted. We would imagine that their meals consisted of entire chickens, steaks, potatoes and all the trimmings that we knew must certainly accompany such a feast. Perhaps, I hated Martin more than the others, because of his belly. It was this intense dislike for him and his belly that made me forget the monstrous significance of the red sky. We inspected him as closely as we could, trying to discern as much about him as possible through the sheet of dust. His face was scarred and dotted with white spots and his rat-like teeth would sparkle in the evening sun, as he spoke to his younger brother. His hair was cut very short, giving him his only semblance of neatness. His clothes were dirty, and his shirt failed to completely cover his belly. His short pants displayed a pair of skinny legs that I found difficult to believe could support his belly. It was only his shoeless, calloused feet and filthy arms that made him the appearance of a sacred lemur, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.
Even if we had wanted to start a conversation, the strong wind would have prevented it. As it was we simply stared at each other. We stared in a silent eternity, an eternity that was broken when Martin languidly picked up a clod from the ground and threw it at us. Calmly and simply. No reason. He just threw it. He missed, and he had made a terrible mistake. He had given us a reason to hurt him and his belly. His throw had come closest to my cousin, who quickly responded with a practiced hand. But Vicente's throw was too late, for Martin and his replica had managed to escape behind the wooden fence that bordered the alley.
It was not an instant showdown between Martin and ourselves. He would throw and duck and the clods would burst into a thousand pieces against the side of the house; we would throw, duck, and miss. We managed to miss each other for ten minutes of intense battle. This type of warfare was not at all unfamiliar to us and we had managed to develop antics and even particular strategies for winning battles. When we tired of this particular phase of our encounter with Martin, we decided to utilize one of our more fundamental plans for fishing him out into the open. Near the north side of our house there was a large hole, which had been dug for rubbish, and since the rubbish had not yet been dumped into it, we decided that it afforded us an excellent opportunity to stage a decoy. The hole had a small mound of dirt that faced the west, and we decided to place my worn red cap a very small distance behind the mound and weigh it down with stones to keep the wind from blowing it away. The position of the cap gave the appearance to those that viewed it that I had hidden in the hole. We anticipated that Martin would see it and, believing that I was in a very vulnerable position, would openly attack me. When our meticulous plan had been set, the three of us waited, panting with excitement. We didn't have to wait long. Martin, an obvious novice in this game, quickly understood the seeming vulnerability of my position and crept as closely as he possibly could. When he felt that he was in the best possible position, he slowly got up, the dust and weeds slowly falling from his palms and knees, reached into the makeshift hopsack satchel containing his ammunition and began throwing clods as fast and fiercely as his thin arms could hurl them. He was a real pigeon. We came running out of our hiding place and Catarino shouted, "Martin!""
He turned, his eyes wide with the knowledge that he had been fooled, and met a hail of clods. One hit him on the temple, my throw, one sunk deeply into his belly, and as he turned to flee into the shadows of the alley another bit his back. He ran until he felt that he was safely out of throwing distance, turned, his cheeks streaming tears, his face distorted by anger, anguish, and hurt, picked up a clod and made a last futile gesture of defiance as he hurled it in our direction. The weed-imbedded clod fell ten feet short of its target. We had won a real victory. What a fool he was, we all agreed. He deserved it. Yes, of course, but not really. Why in the heck had he thrown that darn clod in the first place? He must have known he would lose.
When my brother and cousin had gone inside the house to eat dinner, I slowly walked to the place where he had made his last defiant gesture. The darkness of night was beginning and the last rays of red were disappearing from the sky. The wind whistled in my ears as I stopped to examine the area of his last stand, and noticed a small, gray, cast iron cap pistol with a broken trigger. I assumed that it must belong to him. I bent and retrieved it from its bed of dust. My first impulse was to keep it, to slip it into my pocket and walk back to the house and display it as part of the booty of our last battle. But I didn't. I placed the gun in my pocket and walked into the part of the alley where I had seen Martin disappear. As often as his mother had come out into the alley and called his name, none of us really knew where he lived. I walked into the night and crept by the wooden houses examining each one trying to figure which one contained Martin and his enormous belly. The darkness of the night had forced the houses to light their windows, and as I walked by each house, I would peer into them trying to see Martin's face. I finally decided that he must live in the trailer that had recently appeared in the vacant lot in the Gonzales' backyard. With this assurance, I headed toward the dark, windowless, wooden trailer that looked as if Martin had built it. I approached the door and knocked softly, still not sure that this was the right place, and I then heard a soft, "Pase" and instantly I knew that it was Martin's house. I was reluctant and yet anxious to enter the house. Reluctant, because I knew that he must surely have told his mother of our battle and anxious because I knew that it was supper time and I would get to see the food that made Martin so fat. I walked up the last step, being very careful not to fall and gently pushed the door open so that a thin shaft of light pierced the cold night. A strange odor struck my nose as I took my first step in the small trailer. It was kerosene! I hadn't smelled kerosene since our family had left the labor camp in "el hoyo" five years ago. How could he eat so well and still use kerosene lamps, I thought to myself, as I took my final step into the trailer.
Because the light in the trailer was very dim, I didn't immediately notice Martin and his mother. But as my eyes grew accustomed to the dimness of the trailer, I saw her sitting on an empty lard can turned upside down. Tears were slowly moving down her cheeks as Martin quietly sobbed in her arms. I placed the gun on the floor, reached behind my back and grabbed the door, and began to slowly retreat into the cold night. As I left, my eyes made a final sweeping movement searching for the table that contained the food that made Martin so fat. On a weather-worn table, with peeling red paint, dinner was set. There lay the food that had made Martin so enviable in our eyes — a small stack of corn tortillas and a glass of water.