Piano Lesson/s

Piano Lesson/s

Photo by Piotr on Adobe Stock

In 1925, the seven hundred forty-two citizens of Mañana celebrated the town’s third anniversary as an incorporated city in the San Joaquin Valley. A dream of Alexander Jason “A.J.” Ryan—an emigrant from Ohio—he purchased the North Madera Ranch in 1912, then worked with the Secretary of State’s office in Sacramento to establish a town that he envisioned as the future of the Valley. “Tomorrow,” as he put it to his family and business partners. Given the Spanish-speaking roots of California abundantly embodied in so many city designations, A.J. opted for “Mañana” as the town’s name. After all, everyone knew what that meant in Spanish, from the farmers and ranchers to the politicians, and it just seemed to fit. It also fit with the “M” towns that had popped up in the Valley—Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, and others.

Carlos Trujillo, of course, knew none of this history. At five years old, he was more occupied with the chores his mother gave him to do, learning about God from the local nuns, and playing with other migrant workers’ kids in the camps where their one-room houses huddled by the Mañana River.

On this day in June, he pulled up with his mother in the family’s mule-drawn cart, then descended onto the dusty center street and took the few steps up to the front of the general store. He didn’t weigh more than forty pounds, yet the wooden floorboards leading to the door creaked under his weight. He marveled at the sound and asked his mother if the boards felt pain when people walked on them and that’s why they groaned. She laughed at his question.

“The things you think of,” she said in Spanish.

He bent over, peered at the boards, and whispered, “Sorry. I had to step on you.”

“Carlitos,” the owner said with a smile when they entered. “Nice to see you again. And your mother.” He offered a polite nod to her. A stocky gringo with a mustache and hairy arms, he asked, “What’s on your list today?”

Despite the colorful array of canned goods on the shelves, the boxes of breakfast cereal stacked on a table, and the giant vats of pickled cucumbers, Carlitos and his mother had come for some household basics—dried beans, flour, salt, lard, and soap. Carlitos was there to help because his mother’s English skills were limited, and although Spanish was his first language, his command of English was quickly approaching that of any Anglo kid his age. His parents prized him for the early signs of intelligence he showed. Not well-educated, they’d fled the disruption of the Mexican Revolution eight years prior and worked the crop fields up and down the Central Valley before landing in Mañana. They had high hopes for Carlitos, that he would go to school, learn many things, have a life in the United States that wasn’t possible in Mexico—a life better than the one he had now.

“You are so smart,” his mother had recently told him. “We’re going to get you enrolled into school this coming year. Look at you. You can already read!”

Carlitos owed his incipient literacy to the nuns at St. Anthony, who watched over children of parents with meager incomes. His father worked the fields while his mother had secured a job the year before at the local Mañana Hotel, cleaning and doing laundry. The nuns shared picture books based on Bible stories, and Carlitos outshone the other kids by the age of four, reading aloud from the pages without much assistance from the sisters. His parents couldn’t pay the nuns, and of course, the sisters would never accept money, but his mother would always bake fresh tortillas, bread, and cook occasional pots of rabbit stew and drop them off once a week. These were simple offerings, yet much appreciated by the sisters—and the father who ran the parish.

Just as they were loading their goods onto their cart, Carlitos spied an approaching coach. It was covered and had doors on both sides as well as four wheels, and was drawn by two horses. He eyed it with something between wonder and envy, his coffee-colored eyes wide. A tall man descended from the interior—a well-trimmed beard the color of copper wrapped around his jaw, and a felt cowboy hat perched on his head. Trailing him was a young boy, about Carlitos’s age. He had reddish blond hair, freckled cheeks, and as his azure gaze met Carlitos’s awkward stare, he smiled. One tooth was missing. He waved, and Carlitos waved back.

“Do you know him?” his mother asked. “From church?”

Carlitos shook his head. The boy followed his father into the store, took one last look at Carlitos before he stepped over the threshold, then disappeared inside.

“That man must be very rich,” his mother said as he climbed onto the seat next to her. She clicked her tongue and shook the reins so that their mule would pull away. “He owns the hotel.”

“Where you work?”

“Yes, m’hijo. I see him sometimes.”

As the mule trudged along under the bright blue dome of the Central Valley sky, Carlitos cast a glance over his shoulder, the image of the freckled boy lingering among his thoughts. Carlitos wasn’t entirely sure what rich meant, having the vague idea that it had something to do with money and where people lived. Sometimes the nuns talked about it—stories about rich men in the Bible who weren’t pure of heart, who valued gold and possessions more than a relationship with God. Was being rich a bad thing? One nun quoted the Bible. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” She added that Carlitos and his friends should be thankful to be poor. God watched out for poor people.

“He doesn’t watch out for rich people?” he asked.

“They don’t need his help,” she said.

“I don’t understand.”

“You will. Someday.”

Carlitos heard that a lot from the nuns—and sometimes from his parents. Things that seemed difficult for them to explain ended with he would understand someday. Would he?

***

Several days later, Carlitos was at St. Anthony’s, sitting on a bench with Pedro—another boy his age who also lived in the camps. They were sharing a peach under the shade of a sycamore, trying to stay out of California’s relentless summer sun, when a covered coach made its way to the front of the church. The same man got out and with him was the freckled boy.

“Look,” his friend said in Spanish, “a gringo and his dad. I wonder why they’re here.”

Carlitos didn’t respond, his gaze fixed on the young boy. His father stood talking to a nun. The boy left his side and sauntered over to Carlitos and his friend. He stuck out his hand.

“I’m Andy.”

Carlitos extended his own hand. “I’m Carlos. But everyone calls me Carlitos because my dad is Carlos, too.”

“Same here,” Andy said. “My dad is Andrew, so they call me Andy.” He looked at the other boy.

“Pedro,” he said.

“You Mexican?” Andy asked them both, pronouncing the word as Messican.

“Yes,” Pedro said.

“I’m American,” Carlitos answered. “I was born here.” His parents had told him to always make it clear to everyone that he was American. He wasn’t sure why. Wasn’t it clear he was American? He lived in America. It was probably one of those things he would understand someday.

“I was born here, too,” Andy said.

Just then his dad called out. “Andy, come along. Sister Mary Joseph wants to speak with you.”

Carlitos later found out that Sister Mary Joseph offered piano lessons to kids in Mañana. Andy’s father wanted him to learn, something about every kid should learn an instrument. Carlitos wondered if that was something he could ever do.

He watched as Andy shook hands with the sister and chatted. Then they left to enter the church, Andy once again looking over his shoulder at Carlitos and waving. Carlitos waved back.

“Is the gringo your friend?” Pedro said as he pried the peach pit from its core. He licked his fingers after tossing the stone to the ground.

Carlitos shrugged. “I saw him the other day. He seems nice.”

“Gringos and mexicanos don’t mix. That’s what my parents say.”

That night, Carlitos asked his dad about what Pedro had told him.

“Well, some people think so,” he replied. “But not everyone. Look at your mother. She works in the hotel. There are gringos working there. She talks to them all the time. You can be friends with anyone you want, as long as they are kind and decent.”

Then he went on to explain something about a history of bad blood, how California used to be part of Mexico but got taken away after a war a long time before. Carlitos thought on that and figured he’d ask the nuns one day to explain the whole story to him.

The next time Carlitos saw Andy, a week had passed. Carlitos was sweeping the front entrance to the church when a smiling Andy called out to him.

“Carlitos!” He waved as he strode toward the front door. He stopped. “Why are you sweeping?”

“It’s my chore,” Carlitos said. “I sweep at home, too.”

“I don’t sweep. We have a lady who cleans our house and cooks. She’s Mexican. She teaches me Spanish.”

Carlitos didn’t know how to respond. A lady who cleaned and cooked for them? His mom cleaned the hotel. Was it that kind of job? But his own mom did the cleaning and cooking in their home.

“I’m here for my piano lesson. Do you take piano lessons?”

Carlitos shook his head.

“It’s fun.” Andy held up his hands as though posed in front of a keyboard and moved his fingers while reciting the imaginary keys they touched. “C-D-E-F and G.” He smiled broadly.

Carlitos just looked at him.

“Wanna be my friend?” Andy asked.

Carlitos thought for a moment about Pedro’s comment about gringos and Mexicans not mixing, then remembered what his dad had said. He shrugged. “Sure.”

Before they could continue their conversation, Andy’s coach pulled up amid a cloud of dust that roiled up under the horses’ stomping hooves. He called to his son from an opened door.

“I’ve got to go,” Andy said. “See you soon.” He skipped away.

Carlitos watched him climb into the coach, then the driver shook the reins and called out to the horses, “Gitty up.” Andy leaned out of the door window and waved. Carlitos held his hand up, squinting from the downpour of the early summer sun. Then he returned to his task, whisking the broom back and forth across the brick entrance.

That evening, he told his parents about making friends with Andy. His dad nodded in approval as he spooned pinto beans onto his plate next to the chicken legs that had been cooked over a wooden fire outside. “Está bien, m’hijo,” he said. “It’s good to make friends.”

Carlitos smiled, then bit into his tortilla, wondering what Andy was eating for dinner.

***

The following week, Carlitos saw Andy at the church. As usual, his coach pulled up and he hopped out, his dad telling him he’d pick him up in two hours. He hustled over to where Carlitos sat taking a break from his chores, Pedro at his side. Andy waved as he approached.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” Carlos said.

Pedro said nothing. He sat there, stirring the dirt at his feet with a dead tree branch he’d found earlier.

“What’s the matter with him?” Andy asked.

Carlitos shrugged. Pedro jumped up, threw the stick into the bushes behind the bench, and dashed off behind the church.

“Maybe he doesn’t like me,” Andy said.

“I like you,” Carlitos answered with a smile.

Andy dropped onto the bench where Pedro had sat. “I like you, too.” Then he added, “I’ve got my piano lesson. But maybe we can play when I get out.”

“Okay. I should be done with my chores.”

Andy stood and said, “See you later,” then scurried off to the church’s entrance.

Carlitos went about his chores, sweeping the brick walkway and then scooping up the horse manure from the dirt drive up and carrying it to the side of the church where the nuns used it as fertilizer for their vegetable plants. Just as he was washing his hands in the trough outside the church, Andy emerged.

“Lesson’s over!” he called as he ran toward Carlitos. “You done, too?”

Carlitos nodded. He shook water off his hands and then dried them on his pants.

“What do you want to do?” Andy asked.

“I don’t know. There’s a tree out back we can climb.”

Andy grinned, and the two boys dashed off to an area behind the church where fruit trees and a pergola offered shade. Off to one side was a large Spanish oak.

“Come on,” Carlitos said, and he began the ascent.

Andy followed him. Within less than a minute they were perched on a large limb, looking down at the grounds below.

“My dad runs a hotel,” Andy said, his legs dangling.

“My dad works in the barley fields,” Carlitos said.

“What does he do?”

Carlitos shrugged. “Makes sure the barley grows right. Then cuts it down when it’s ready.” They sat there in silence for a minute. Then Carlitos added, “My mom works with your dad.”

“She does?”

“Yes. She cleans at the hotel.”

“Oh.” Andy spat, watching his saliva hit the dry ground below. “My dad takes me to the hotel sometimes. But I don’t know your mom.”

A nun exited the back of the church and called out.

“Andy! Your father is here!”

Andy turned to Carlitos. “Well, I guess I’d better go. See you after my next lesson.”

“Sure.”

Andy began a careful descent, scraped his knee on a knob protruding from the bark and howled.

“You okay?” Carlitos asked.

“Yeah. But I ripped my pants. My dad is gonna be mad.”

He finished his climb down, looked up at Carlitos and waved, then dashed off—Carlitos’s gaze following him until he disappeared.

***

A month passed—the days grew longer, hotter, and dustier. Carlitos saw Andy every week during piano lesson time. One day, after the lesson was over, Carlitos told Andy to follow him, and they ambled over to a row of fruit trees. Carlitos looked carefully, then grabbed a nearby stepladder and picked an apple he thought might be the ripest.

“Come on,” he said. “We can sit on the bench.”

Once in the shade, Carlitos polished the apple on his pants leg, then bit into it.

“It’s good,” he mumbled. He handed it to Andy.

Andy took a bite, and so they sat there, passing the apple back and forth, until it was nothing but a thin core with dark seeds at the center and chiseled with teeth marks. Carlitos flung it into the bushes.

“Are you rich?” he asked.

Andy shrugged. “I’m not sure. My dad says we’re well-to-do, whatever that means. The main street is named after my uncle.”

The central thoroughfare that traversed Mañana was Ryan Boulevard. Wide enough for horse-drawn carts and coaches to make a U-turn, it was the heart of the new city and was populated with a general store, a few specialty shops such as blacksmith, cabinet maker, and of course, the hotel where Carlitos’s mother worked.

Carlitos pondered the information his friend had just provided, then said, “We’re not rich. I mean, the nuns tell me I’m not.”

A few beats ticked by before Andy said, “My dad says that Mexicans are poor people. He likes Mexicans, though. He says they’re hardworking.” His eyes grew wide. “Hey. Maybe you can come visit sometime.”

“I guess so.”

Andy put his arm around Carlitos’s shoulder. Carlitos leaned in and rested his head against Andy.

“You’re my best friend,” Andy said.

Just then, Pedro came from around the corner of the church. He stopped in mid-stride. Carlitos sat up. He gestured for Pedro to come join them. The other boy stared for a moment, then spun around and ran back to where he’d come from.

“He doesn’t like us being friends,” Carlitos said.

“Why not?”

“He says gringos and Mexicans don’t mix.”

Andy scrunched his face. “What’s a gringo?”

“You are.” Carlitos pointed to Andy’s face then his arm. Then he pointed to his own. “We look different.”

“But you’re American,” Andy said.

“Yes. But Pedro says we’re two different kinds of people.”

Andy shrugged. “I don’t care.” Then, without warning, he leaned in and kissed Carlitos on the cheek. He grinned, then stood. “I have to go. I can hear the horses coming up in front of the church.”

Carlitos followed him, and both boys stood as Andy’s family coach pulled up, horses snorting and clomping their way to a stop. The door popped open, and his dad leaned out.

“Ready to go?”

Andy nodded.

“Who’s this?” his dad asked, jutting his chin toward Carlitos.

“He’s my friend. His name is Carlitos.”

“Nice to meet you, Carlitos.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you.”

Carlitos stepped forward and offered his hand, the way his parents had taught him to do with adults. They shook.

“Well, you’re a polite young man.” Mr. Ryan turned to Andy. “Climb up. Let’s go.”

Andy looked at Carlitos and said, “See you soon.” Then stepped up onto the sidebar as his dad helped him into the coach. Then the door closed, and the coach pulled away, wheels groaning between the cloppity-clop of the horses.

Carlitos stayed and watched his friend’s transport disappear down the dirt road. He reached up and touched his cheek where Andy had kissed him, not sure why the other boy had done that. It hadn’t bothered him. Instead, he liked it. He smiled, then turned to head back and sit in the church. He stopped when he saw Pedro standing a few yards behind.

“You like the gringo,” Pedro said.

“He’s my friend.”

I’m your friend.”

“My dad says I can be friends with anyone if they are kind and decent.”

Pedro frowned, his eyes narrowing just a bit. With an abrupt turn on his heels, he hurried away. Carlitos stood there, not sure what problem Pedro had with Andy. Because he was a gringo, and gringos and Mexicans weren’t supposed to be friends? He was confused. The door to the church opened, and Sister Mary Joseph called to him, interrupting his thoughts.

“Carlitos, are you going to come inside? I’d like for you to help me with the candles.”

“Yes, Sister,” he responded, his voice hollower than he meant it to be.

“Something wrong?”

He shook his head, then trotted over to her. She put her hand on his shoulder and guided him inside—dim, quiet, the only light coming from sun that filtered through four stained-glassed windows. Carlitos liked the inside of the church, with its statues of Jesus and Mary, the carved stations of the cross distributed throughout, the faint smell of incense. There was a comfort to it, as though God himself were there, wrapping warm, invisible hands around whoever entered.

The chore consisted of pulling out old votives and replacing them with new ones, making sure the match bin was full, and emptying the donation box. The nuns had already taught him to count, and by the end of the task, he figured they’d replaced thirty votives. While they worked, he asked Sister Mary Joseph a question.

“Pedro says that gringos and Mexicans aren’t supposed to mix.”

She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Did he?”

Carlitos nodded.

“Well, God made everyone, didn’t he?”

Carlitos nodded again.

“Did he make everyone alike?”

“No.”

“Well, there you go. There are tall people, short people, skinny people, fat people, people who speak Spanish, people who speak English, there are Chinese. Now why do you think God made us all different?”

“I don’t know.”

She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked directly into his eyes, her own lined with wrinkles from her six decades on Earth. They were the same color as Andy’s but faded like the pale blue flax that grew by the river. “Life is a test for us all to get along. We’re supposed to mix. Be kind to each other.”

Carlitos mulled on this. Then asked, “Why would Pedro say such a thing?”

The sister turned back to the chore at hand as she pulled expired votives and handed them to Carlitos to place in a box. “I don’t know, Carlitos.” She handed him the last one and then turned to him. “I see you are friends with Andy Ryan.”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. And you’re friends with Pedro, too.”

“Yes.”

“Well, then. . .” She brushed her hands together to clean them off. “You’re doing exactly what God wants. Now, let’s carry this box into the back.”

“Okay.”

As they lumbered toward the rear of the church, each holding a handle of the box—Carlitos with a little more effort than Sister Mary Joseph—he reflected on their conversation. Did God really make everyone different as a test? Was he doing what God wanted him to do? Then he thought about how Andy had kissed him. His parents had taught him to shake hands, saying that’s what men did when they met or when they greeted each other. He wondered . . .

***

Each time Andy arrived for a piano lesson, Pedro would scurry away, muttering something Carlitos couldn’t hear. When Andy finished his lessons, Carlitos waited for him outside the church. Andy’s dad never picked him up until an hour later, giving Carlitos and his friend time to play—which for five-year-olds consisted of kicking a ball back and forth, throwing rocks at made-up targets, and climbing trees.

On an early August day, Andy showed up for lessons in a shiny black vehicle without horses—a Model-T, Carlitos later found out it was called. It chugged along the dirt drive up to the church and blared a sound that caused Carlitos’s eyes to widen—like someone was squeezing a giant goose. OOOOGAH! Carlitos ran to meet the horseless coach, grinning with a mix of wonder and excitement.

“This is our new automobile,” Andy said as he jumped down.

“Hello, Carlitos,” his dad said behind goggled eyes. “How do you like her?”

Carlitos had no words. He ran his hand along the vehicle’s metal exterior, then touched the rubber tires.

“Want a ride?” Mr. Ryan asked.

Carlitos nodded with vigor. Andy’s dad motioned for both boys to jump in, then he drove them down the dirt driveway and then back to the entrance to the church. Carlitos giggled.

“Okay, Andy,” Mr. Ryan said as the boys hopped off the auto. “I’ll be back in about two hours. Be good and pay attention in your lesson.” He offered an army salute, then put the vehicle in gear and chug-chugged away.

“You must be rich,” Carlitos said as he and Andy wrapped arms around each other’s shoulders and Carlitos led him to the door of the church.

“See you when I’m done!” Andy disappeared through the doors, Carlitos smiling.

He had no chores for that hour, and so he decided to sit on a bench under a shade tree and read one of the Bible picture books the nuns had handed to him earlier that day. In this particular story, God told a man named Noah it was going to rain. People were wicked and had to be punished. God would drown them. Carlitos didn’t understand. God was supposed to be merciful. He loved his children. So why would he kill them all? Didn’t Sister Mary Joseph just say he made us all different on purpose? Maybe when God made it rain, people weren’t getting along. He’d have to ask the nuns next time there was a lesson.

An hour later, Andy burst through the door of the church and called out to Carlitos.

“Hola, amigo!”

Carlitos grinned. “You speak Spanish.”

“I told you,” Andy said. “The lady who works at our house teaches me.” He grabbed Carlitos by the hand, and the two ran to the row of fruit trees, picked a peach this time, and then dashed to a bench. Andy held the fruit in his hand.

“You call this a durazno in Spanish, right?”

Carlitos nodded. Andy took a bite and then held it for Carlitos to take one as well. Carlitos sank his teeth into the yellow flesh, the sweetness flooding his tongue. He closed his eyes.

“Mmmm.”

He opened his eyes to find Andy grinning.

“Muy bueno, ¿no?”

“Sí,” Carlitos responded.

Then Andy bit into the peach, kept his teeth locked into it, leaned into Carlitos and gestured for him to do the same. Carlitos opened his mouth and clamped down on the peach. They stood there, nose to nose, with just a half of a peach between their lips. Andy giggled with his mouth full, and Carlitos followed suit.

“What are you doing?” Sister Mary Joseph said, approaching unnoticed.

At the same time, both boys finished their bite, the remnants of the peach falling between them onto the dirt, its sweet juices gathered around their lips. Carlitos wiped.

“We’re sharing a peach,” he said.

“Yes,” Andy said, drawing the back of his hand across his mouth.

“That’s an odd way to share,” she said. She paused, her gaze locked on the two of them.

Carlitos could feel her stare penetrate him. Her eyes narrowed. Something was wrong, but what? Was he being wicked like the people in the Noah story? But he and Andy were getting along. Wasn’t that what they were supposed to do?

She gestured. “Come on. Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. Your faces are a mess.”

Carlitos slipped his hand into Andy’s as they trudged behind the nun. He smiled while Andy suppressed a giggle.

That afternoon, when Carlitos’s mother came to pick him up, Sister Mary Joseph asked if they could speak in private. Carlitos sat in a pew in the back of the church while his mom accompanied the sister to the office. He sat there, legs dangling, wondering why the sister wanted to speak to his mom alone. Had he done something wrong? Or maybe she was going to talk about piano lessons. That would be great. Ten minutes or so passed, and his mother reappeared, Sister Mary Joseph by her side.

“Muchas gracias,” his mother said to the nun. “I will speak to my husband.” Then she approached Carlitos and said, “Vamos.” She offered her hand, and he clasped it.

Outside, after they climbed into the cart, he said, “Mamá, what did you and the sister talk about?”

“We will discuss it later. With your father.”

They rode in silence all the way to the camps.

At seven o’clock, with the sun heading toward the western horizon, Carlitos was outside with other kids from the camps. His father had just come home and had entered their house. While he was playing tag, his mother called him inside. “Your father and I want to talk to you.”

Carlitos left his playmates and lumbered to his home. His father sat him down on a chair at the kitchen table, his mother standing nearby.

“M’hijo,” his dad said, “the nun says that a boy at the church saw you kissing Andy and that you were holding hands.”

Carlitos furrowed his brow, looked up at his mother, then back at his dad. “Yes. He’s my friend.”

“But boys don’t kiss and hold hands.”

“Why not?”

His dad pursed his lips, paused, then said, “They just don’t. Boys kiss girls.”

“But you kiss me every night. Before bed.”

“That’s different. You’re my son. But someday you will be older, and I won’t kiss you anymore.”

Carlitos looked down at his shoes, the laces and sides sullied from the Central Valley dust. He didn’t understand. He looked up at his parents.

“You said I could be friends with anyone as long as they were kind. Andy’s very nice.”

“But friends don’t kiss and hold hands,” his father added.

“So we can be friends as long as we don’t hold hands or kiss?”

“Sí, m’hijito,” his mother said.

Carlitos thought on this for a moment. Then he asked, “Am I in trouble because he’s gringo?”

“What do you mean?” his father asked.

“Like what Pedro said,” Carlitos answered. “Gringos and Mexicans aren’t supposed to mix.”

His father sighed, looked up at his mom. She shook her head. His father returned his attention to Carlitos.

“Let’s talk about this some more another day. It’s time for dinner.”

Carlitos suspected whatever the problem was it would be one of those things he would understand “someday.” He didn’t speak during the meal, wondering if Pedro had been the one who said something to the nuns.

The following week, Andy arrived with his father. Both descended from their vehicle, Andy quiet, avoiding eye contact. Mr. Ryan strode up to Carlitos.

“You and my son are not to play with each other or talk to each other. Do you understand?”

Carlitos furrowed his brow, then cast his gaze toward Andy. His friend stood there, looking down at the brown earth, hands shoved in pockets.

“Young man, I asked you if you understood.”

Carlitos looked up. “What—what’s wrong?”

“Just stay away from Andy.” Mr. Ryan turned, grabbed his son by the arm, and marched him toward the entrance to the church.

Carlitos watched them, wondering what had happened. Then he turned, trudged toward the side steps of the church, his broom waiting for him. With slumped shoulders, he began his chore. After a few minutes, he heard the Model-T start up, its chug-chug fading as Mr. Ryan drove away. He waited for Andy later, but his friend never emerged from the church. As he sat on a bench, he heard the Ryans’ vehicle approach. He stood, hurried around to the front doors and watched as Andy climbed into the passenger side. Sister Mary Joseph was there talking to Mr. Ryan. After a few minutes, he got into the driver’s seat, and soon the automobile was headed down the dirt drive. Carlitos rushed over to the sister and stopped her before she reentered the church.

“Andy’s dad says we can’t play together anymore.”

“I’m afraid Andy won’t be coming back,” she said. “He’s not going to take any more lessons.”

“Why?”

She shook her head. “It’s difficult to explain.”

But he understood that it had to do with him and Andy kissing and holding hands. Anger seized his gut, then traveled upward. He bolted from the church, burst into the sunlight of the afternoon, and found Pedro sitting with two other kids on the side steps. He stormed over to him.

“Did you tell Sister Mary Joseph?”

Pedro looked up, eyes wide. “What—what?”

The other children were silent, looking on, expectant of something. Pedro swallowed hard. Carlitos took a step forward, leaned in, and punched him. The other kids jumped up, scrambled to put some distance between themselves and the two boys. Then Carlitos flung himself at Pedro, dragged him to the ground, and sat on his belly and pinned his arms down. Pedro squirmed.

“Get off me! Help!”

Carlitos was about to take another swing when Sister Mary Joseph emerged from behind the church and called out.

“Boys! Stop that! What’s going on?”

She grabbed Carlitos by the upper arm and pulled him away. Pedro pushed himself backward, then stood.

“He hit me!” Tears streamed down his cheeks.

Carlitos simply stared at him, nostrils flaring slightly.

“Did you hit him?” the sister asked.

“He’s a tattletale!” Carlitos almost spat the words out. “You’re not my friend anymore!”

The nun pulled him away and marched him into the church. Carlitos looked over his shoulder at Pedro and stuck his tongue out. Inside, she asked him what had happened. Carlitos folded his arms and wouldn’t talk. Later, when his mother came to pick him up, the sister told her what she’d seen, what Pedro had said.

“Is this true, Carlitos?” his mother asked. “You fought with Pedro.”

He remained quiet, pouting.

“Carlitos. Talk to me!”

He looked at her, tears gathering in his eyes. “He ruined it. He’s mean. Now I can’t be friends with Andy.”

His mother thanked the sister and apologized for any problems her son caused, then took Carlitos by the hand and marched him out of the church. That night, his father spoke to him of fighting.

“We need to control our tempers,” he said. “We can’t resolve anything with fists. Your mom and I left Mexico to get away from fighting. Pedro is your friend.”

“No, he isn’t!”

Carlitos went to bed that night, his anger settling into him as a dull sludge of thoughts. I hate Pedro. Sister Mary Joseph shouldn’t have said anything. Why can’t boys kiss or hold hands? Bit by bit, the silent rage ebbed and gave way to a slow-moving tide of images of Andy. His reddish-blond hair. His freckles. His smile with one tooth missing. Sharing an apple. Sharing a peach. Carlitos reached up to his cheek where Andy had kissed him. He wanted to be kissed again.

***

School started at the beginning of September, and Carlitos’s parents enrolled him in kindergarten. Only Mexican children, even if born in the U.S., attended his school—gringo kids having their own. He wondered if Andy was enrolled there, and why there was a separate school to begin with, Pedro’s words lurking among his thoughts. Gringos and Mexicans don’t mix.

Carlitos never saw Andy again at the church. He didn’t see him downtown at the general store. It was as if his friend had disappeared, been spirited away. At catechism class one Saturday, he approached Sister Mary Joseph.

“Will Andy ever come back?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Do you think I’ll ever see him again?”

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “If God wants you to be friends, you will see him again.” She smiled with thin, pale lips—lines fanning out from her eyes like soft angel wings.

Carlitos made new friends at his school, but his thoughts sometimes drifted toward Andy, wondering where he was, who he was playing with, who his friends were. By the time he entered the third grade, his old friend had become lost in a vault of memories forever shut.

***

When Carlitos turned twenty-one, the vault flung open. It was January 1942, and like many young men, Carlitos left his job and enlisted in the army to fight in the war against Germany and Japan. The recruitment center was located in downtown Fresno—a nondescript brick building on a side street with a large poster in the blind-covered window featuring a waving American flag and touting the slogan “Join now! Army. Navy. Air. Marines.” Carlitos entered the sparsely furnished space and saw two wooden desks manned by uniformed personnel. Several guys his age stood in line. As he headed toward them, he spied a guy with reddish-blond hair and freckles seated at a side table completing his application form. Carlitos studied him—recognition curling around the edges of his thoughts. He strode over.

“Excuse me. Don’t I know you?”

The guy looked up. A few seconds ticked off, and then his eyes widened. “Carlitos?”

Carlitos nodded. Andy stood and extended his hand. They engaged in a vigorous shake, one that signaled delight as much as anything else.

“My God!” Andy said. “How long has it been?”

“A long time,” Carlitos replied. He released his grip. “Guess we’re here to do our patriotic duty.”

“Yessir.” Andy smiled. “So how are you?”

“Good. I work at a dairy. Made it through the Depression like everyone else. You?”

“We lost most of our money in the thirties,” Andy said. “My dad had a heart attack and died, so mom and I moved in with my uncle and his family.”

“I’m sorry,” Carlitos said.

Andy shrugged. “Shit happens.”

Carlitos nodded.

They stood there, Carlitos gazing into the blue eyes of his long-lost friend as images of his childhood rushed forward. The church. Shaded benches. Fruit trees. A five-year-old with freckles. A kiss. He took in a slight breath.

“So how’s your life been?” Andy asked.

Carlitos hooked his thumbs in his belt. “Not too bad. I live in Merced now.”

“Me, too,” Andy said with a grin. “Hey, remember St. Anthony’s? The nuns?”

“Oh, yes. Of course. Did you ever take up piano again?”

“No.” Andy looked down at his feet, then off to the side. “After what happened, my dad said that was enough. He thought . . . maybe . . . well, the piano . . .”

Andy’s voice trailed off and Carlitos completed the thought in his own head. He thought that maybe you were turning into a sissy. He cleared his throat.

“You married?”

Andy shook his head. “You?”

“No.” He looked directly into Andy’s eyes. “Hard to find the right person.”

Andy returned a steady gaze. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Hey, what are you doing after you’re done here?” Andy finally said.

“I took off from my job for the afternoon, so nothing, really.”

“How about grabbing a bite or a beer? Spend some time catching up.”

Carlitos smiled. “I’d like that.”

Andy grinned again. “Okay. I’m going to finish my application. How about I wait for you outside?”

“Sure.”

Again, they stood there, silent, Carlitos gazing into Andy’s eyes.

“Well, I’ll get to it,” Andy said. He took a seat at the table, picked up his pen, and looked up at Carlitos once more. He winked, then went about his task.

Carlitos turned and sauntered over to the short line of prospective recruits. As he waited, he thought of St. Anthony’s. He and Andy sat on a bench under a tree, sharing a peach. Without thinking, he reached up and touched his cheek.

About the Author

Bill VanPatten

Bill VanPatten is an award-winning author of four novels and three collections of short stories. As an #ownvoices writer, gay and Latino characters tend to populate his stories. He left a successful career in academia to return to his native California and write full time. On occasion, he still performs standup comedy. He is currently working on his fifth novel as well as additional short stories.

Read more work by Bill VanPatten.