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A love story.

Jerry Lawlor sat on the right side of the truck cabin and watched the long road that lay like a dropped rope across the mountains. The driver of the truck, who had picked him up on the highway, was not talkative, but when they crept slowly up a steep grade east of the pass, Jerry shifted his guitar case on the seat beside him and the man glanced at him.

"You one of them cowboy singers?" he said.

"Some of the time."

The driver considered that. "Seems like you're headed the wrong way," he said slowly. "Seems like Denver would be better. They got a lot of nights clubs up there and a lot of radio."

Jerry shrugged. "There's nothing in any city that I want."

"There's nothin' where I'm goin' neither."

"There'll e something."

They left it at that. Jerry lawlor was 19 and there wasn't anything that he felt like talking about to anyone. He had been young and strong and he had known glory. He had ridden the rodeo circuits from Houston and San Antone to Cheyenne and Pendleton, and he had won his share of prizes. In Madison Square Garden, New York, he reached the end of the glory road with a horse on top of him. When he got out of the hospital he came West again to report to his draft board, overdue and underweight. They hadn't been interested in him. After that; he bought the guitar.

The truck picked up speed beyong the pass, rolling down into the golden glory of the aspens, finding the straight road of the valley where chili peppers hung in scarlet strings on small houses and huts. There was a smudge of smoke in the sky; then a couple of shabby filling stations and a sign of proclaiming the existence of a town and giving it a name. It was PATATA.

"Reckon this is your town," the truck driver said. "I'm hauling to a wildcat up beyond. Ain't nothin' between here and there."

"Good enough. Thanks."

Jerry swung down from the truck onto the main drag. It was about three blocks long, with a motley collection of stores, bars and eating places. All the buildings were old, weather-beaten; mostly frame. There was a church steeple off the drag to the right, with the foothills crowding close behind it, shelves of roch angling upward with the hint of space behind them. There was no motion-picture theater and there were no TV aerials in sight. Jerry approved of that. There had to be entertainment of some kind, probably his brand. At the edge of town he found what he was seeking.

There was a low, rectangular building with a sign that identified it as GARCIA'S PLACE and proclaimed in Spanish that it was a place of refreshment and of entertainment, with music, dancing and three kinds of beer. Jerry Lawlor read and spoke Spanish, after a fashion, as he played the guitar. He had learned from men who, like himself, followed the rodeo trail. There was much time in which to learn skills, and few skills to learn along that route. A man concentrated on the few that he had a chance to learn and if he was interested, he became pretty good.

The light was dim in Garcia's. A big, barnlike room extended back from the bar. In the afternoon it was merely a resting place for shadows; at night it would be a dance hall. There were tables ringing the open space, and an upright piano on a raised platform midway between the bar and the rear wall. Jerry photographed it all in a glance and then faced the only two people in the place--a slender, dark-haired girl behind the bar and a big man who sat on a bar stool with one elbow resting on the bar. They were looking at him, silent, curious. Jerry was not interested in girls at the moment. He addressed himself to the man.

"You the boss?" he said.

The girl's scornful laugh cut across the inquiry. "He is not the boss," she said. "He is the lazy man who drinks when other men work." Her eyes rested on the guitar case, then lifted to Jerry's face. "You are the musician? You want a job?"

"You guessed it, sister."

The man laughed, and there was scorn in his daughter for an Anglo who sought a job in a place that was Spanish. The girl glanced at him and her chin lifted.

"This is not the place for the man with many dollars in his head," she said. "It is the place for poor men with money in their pockets, poor men who earn the money by digging the potatoes and baling the alfalfa and doing the things that a man must do."

She spoke to Jerry, but he knew that the words were intended for the man at the bar. Jerry waited. The girl shrugged her shoulders.

"To play music is to work too," she said. "We need the musician. The boss plays the guitar, but he is too busy to do it. You will show me what you do."

She moved lazily out from behind the bar and strolled toward the piano platform. She was small and she moved with arrogant grace. Her blouse was red and she wore a wideswinging skirt of green and yellow. Her black hair was straight, uncurled. She jumped lightly to the platform and seated herself on the stool. There were two chairs, and she waved Jerry to one of them. The piano was incredibly scarred and scuffed, but her fingers called square-dance music out of it. He tuned it, watching her; when she nodded to him, he came in. He could play square-dance music in his sleep. She let him carry it, abandoning the piano to dance around the platform. She snapped her fingers.

"Bueno. Now you play Spanish, yes."

"Si."

He smiled at her. For no particular reason he was beginning to like her. He warmed up on Carmen music, a little "La Paloma," some Cuban rumba; not caring much what he played, so long as it had a Spanish beat. The girl undulated her body, scarcely moving her feet. Her dark eyes glowed and there was a dazzling whiteness in her smile. She went through a pantomime of snapping her fingers for a while without snapping them; then she snapped them once.

"I think yes," she said. "You sing?"

"Some."

He trailed his fingers over the strings, reaching for something. She leaned toward him. "Spanish," she said.

He gave her "Adios, Mariquita Linda." It was something he had learned from experts, from homesick vaqueros who put heartbreak into it. He did not think of it as a love song until the girl went back to the piano. She leaned toward him, commanding his song for herself, playing her own accompaniment to a soft, velvet-smooth voice. It was easy to sing with her, and to her.

He had forgotten the man at the bar. He was aware of him suddenly, with no time to prepare for him. The girl's fingers crashed the keys and her singing broke on a frightened cry of "Pedro!" The big man vaulted to the platform and there was blind, blazing anger in his broad face. Jerry pushed his chair back, but he had no chance of gaining his feet. The man wrenched the guitar from his hands and the heavy arms swung it like a club.

Jerry went down under it with the dark depths opening before him, bright lights swinging high. The girl's voice was a sound in Spanish, indistinct and far away, a thin sound on the edge of silence.

There was daylight gleaming behind a cracked and dirty shade when Jerry awakened the first time. The light hurt his eyes and he closed them again. The next time he opened them. the girl was in the room. He stared at her for several moments before she was aware of his regard. She looked started then, her eyes widening.

"Ah, you have decide to live. I was thinking maybe you are a corpse that breathes." She crossed the room swiftly. "What can I do for you?"

He blinked, struggling with a confused memory. He had vague pictures in his mind of the girl bending over him, doing things for him; many pictures, all of them blurred.

"How long have I been here?" he said.

"Days. You are very sick. You have the doctor one time."

He struggled to sit up, but the effort was too much. In that brief struggle, however, he had a view of the room--a narrow room with one window. It was night and there was a small lamp lighted on a dresser. There was an iron bed and a chair and the cot on which he lay. He was suddenly embarrassed, as only a youth of 19 who lived in a man's world could be embarrassed.

"You--you took care of me," he said.

"But of course. Certainly! There was no one else. It was my fault that you are hurt."

He had to close his eyes again. "How?"

"I was very stupid. The big buffalo was angry with me, so he beat you. It's the way of a man, and I should know it."

He did not want to talk about "the big buffalo." He did not want to talk at all. The girl understood. "I have the kitchen," she said. "I will get the soup for you. It is good to have when you are sick."

He was not certain that soup, or anything else, was good to have. He had disordered memories of nausea and vomiting and racking pain. He was embarrassed again. He tried to find a sequence of events in his memory, but there was nothing but the one vivid picture of a big, snarling man and a lot of scattered dream, or nightmare, sequences. His fists clenched, but it was an effort to clench them. He could not have killed a fly with them.

The girl came back with the soup, and he could see her clearly now. She was prettier than he remembered; round-faced, with large, dark eyes and full, beautifully shaped lips. Her skin was dark ivory with rose tints in it.

"How did I get here?" he said.

"The man who brings the beer came. He is big, strong. He carry you to my place. It is not far."

Jerry wondered, as he ate the soup, what would have happened to him if the girl had not taken him in. As far as this town was concerned, he was just a tramp without money. Disaster had fallen on him before he got a job. The girl sat on the chair, her hands clasped around one knee. She seemed delighted that he was able to eat.

"I have prayed for you," she said simply, "and now I know you will be all right."

She took the soup bowl away and he heard her washing it in the kitchen. When she returned to the room, she asked if there was anything else he wanted. He shook his head.

"Only your name. You didn't tell me," he said.

She smiled, pleased with him. "Maria," she said. "Maria gonzalez."

There were probably a million girls named Maria Gonzalez, but she gave her name pride and dignity and a certain beauty in the way she spoke it.

"I am Jerry Lawlor," he said.

"Jerry!" She weighed the name on her tongue and rejected it, frowning slightly. She found the name again in spanish and her eyes lighted. "I will call you Geromo," she said. "I like that. But it is very late. Good night, Geromo."

She turned out the little light and he heard her undressing in the darkness. He did not look toward her, wanting to do so, yet respecting something that he could not put in words; the fact, perhaps, that this was the only privacy Maria Gonzalez had and that she had shared it with him because he was helpless.

He lay staring at the ceiling for a long time after her regular breathing told him that she was asleep. He was remembering the big man now as a human creature, divorced from the nightmare, a fat lounger at a bar, loafing while other men worked. Before the last horse, Jerry might still have gone down before a man that big, but the man would be hurt first; he wouldn't just hit, he would be hit. Remembering how it actually was, Jerry's jaw tightened. In the nightmare, man and horse had been confused in his mind, but there was no confusion now. He did not hate the horse.

The girl slept late, long after the light grew strong behind the cracked shade. When he heard her stirring, Jerry rolled over and faced the wall. He did not turn around until she spoke to him. She served him a breakfast of ham and eggs. It surprised him to discover that he was hungry and that food tasted good.

"There is not much to do in daytime at Garcia's," she said, "and I work most at night. I play the music. I sing. I dance a little when I feel like it. There are other girls to dance. This week the wife of the boss, Dolores, is sick, and I go there in the afternoon too."

He did not ask what she did before she came to Garcia's. It didn't matter. Somewhere she had learned to play the piano, and the accomplishment gave her rank and station. She could wait on tables when she was needed or serve drinks from the bar, but she was a musician, an entertainer. In a Spanish town all distinctions were important.

After the girl left, Jerry tested his legs. He walked up and down the room, rested a while, then walked again. His shirt had been laundered and was on a hanger behind the door. There were bloodstains on his trousers, but they were faint. Maria had tried to remove them. He dressed slowly, painfully, when the girl left again after supper, and he walked up and down in the darkness outside. Maria's two rooms were in a learn-to addition to a shabby frame house west of Garcia's. There was a family with children in the main part of the structure. He considered that fact thoughtfully. A sick and helpless man in Maria's rooms was one thing; a convalescent was something else.

Maria was cheerful when she came in late that night. She sensed his depression and she made conversation. She told him the legend that was older than the town: the legend of the Indian maiden who jumped from the high point of rock beyond where the Catholic church now stood because her lover was of another tribe and she could not marry him.

"It is beautiful," she said; "more beautiful than sad, no? But it is not funny. Love is never funny."

She tried to tell him something funny. From the beginning of the town, this country was a place of potatoes. Men sought oil and uranium without finding what they sought, but a man, if he worked hard, could make his living from the potato.

"Because this is true," Maria said, "the name of this town is Patata, which is the potato that is Spanish. But it was not so in the beginning, no!"

In the beginning, she explained, men called the town San Patata, which, in Spanish, is Saint Potato; but that was changed when the first priest came.

"The priest said to them that this is a sin, that the potato does not go to heaven. And the men ask him, very serious, how they make a living in heaven if the potato does not go there."

She laughed softly, delighted with her own story. "It is a joke," she said, "but nobody laughs. With the good Spanish joke, everybody laughs tomorrow, not now. With this, even the priest laughs tomorrow, but the name of the town is changed. That is funny, no?"

Jerry admitted that it was funny, and he laughed with her, sharing her enjoyment, but the things that he wanted to say to her had to wait till tomorrow, if their laughter did not. She was already reaching for the light. Her eyes were soft for a moment, looking at him.

"It is good that you are happy, Geromo," she said. "And now, buenas noches."

He turned his face to the wall, and there was warmth in him, and nameless longings. He was an orphan, raised by an uncle and an aunt to whom he was a Christian obligation and a duty, but never an object of affection. He had known few girls, and those few shyly, inarticulately, selfconsciously. He lay awake long in the darkness, conscious of every creak and rattle of the iron bed when Maria moved. He wondered if what he felt for her was love, and how a man could know. He was feeling something-something that ached inside of him and kept sleep away.

In the morning after Maria was gone, he walked in the yard. He sat on a dusty crate when he tired and he looked at the sloping rock that rose behind the town.

It was not so difficult as he thought it would be to climb that rock. There was a street with an easy grade that passed the Catholic church, and a curving path beyond it. He rested often, but in less than three-quarters of an hour he had climbed it. He stood on the edge of a cliff that dropped sheer to a dry creek bed 150 feet below. Jerry turned away. He did not think about the Indian girl who was supposed to have jumped down there. He didn't believe any part of the story. He had known many Indians and he just couldn't imagine it.

He lay with his hands behind his head for an hour after he returned to Maria's staring at the ceiling. She was all around him, in the things she owned and wore. There was a small crucifix on the wall and there were two highly colored lithographs of the Holy Family and of the Virgin of Guadalupe. There was a pink garment not long enough to reach her knees. It was lying across the bed that she did not have time to make before she left, so he knew that it was her nightgown, or whatever it was called, the something in which she slept. Her powder was spilled on the dresser top, and it had a strong scent. There was a green ribbon on the floor.

Jerry knew all of those things, and where they were, without looking at them. There was something else; a fountain-pen gift box on the dresser top near the spilled powder. He rose suddenly and picked it up. The pen inside was cheap, like the box, a ball-point that, obviously, had never been used. He went on a quiet search for paper. Everything that she owned was in the two rooms. She did not own much. There was no paper. The calendar on the kitchen wall advertised a filling station. None of the months had been torn off. He tore off the month of January and wrote slowly, laboriously, on the back of it.

"Dear Maria," he wrote, "thanks. I won't forget. Someday I'll do something for you."

He hesitated; then signed the not, "Geromo."

There were two crumpled dollar bills that he had not owned in the right-hand pocket of his trousers. He did not discover them until he reached the highway. He stood for a moment, weighing pride against his necessity; then he walked back and placed one of the bills on the table under his note. He kept the other one because he was unsure of himself now in strange territory without the guitar.

A truck that was hauling pipe picked him up and he didn't ask where it was going. It was going somewhere.

Jerry Lawlor lived. He washed dishes and he swept floors and he did odd jobs where he found the jobs, sleeping wherever he was permitted to sleep, eating whatever was given him to eat. When the winter closed down on the western slope, he was working for a man named Lindstrom in a town of 600 people. Carl Lindstrom operated a hotel of 15 rooms, which was never filled to capacity even in the summertime. He had beds and warmth and food. He could afford to offer a handyman his necessities for whatever the man could do.

At first, there was not much that Jerry could offer him. As the weeks went by, however, Jerry's body came slowly back to life. He shoveled snow then, and he cut kindling, and he did odd jobs of carpentry.

When he had developed new muscles, Jerry fought grimly with a big man named Pedro down snow-covered walks, and lashed into him with the ax that split the piled lengths of wood. At night sometimes he thought of Maria, but not often; when night came, he was too tired for thought. The big man was a job that he had to do, a score that he had to even, a fight that he had to fight. He could think of him through the day, and the thinking gave his muscles a goal, a reason for being, an objective needing strength. He ate well and he slept well; he worked hard and he grew.

The winter was long, and with the spring he went out with a highway crew that repaired the ravages of winter. He was the lowly member who kept track of tools and hauled water, ran errands and did innocuous things such as restoring fallen highway markers to their proper places. By June he was driving a truck for a highway contractor, and in July he went into the woods, with all other available manpower, to fight a forest fire. The fire lasted for ten days and he stood up to the work, the smoke, the loss of sleep, the irregular meals, the fatigue of forced marches, the danger. He knew, when the fire was out, that he was whole again.

In early August, after the fire, he went to Denver with one of the trucks. He had money i his pockets and sound working clothes. He went down on Larimer street where the pawnshops are and he priced guitars. He found one with a deep, mellow tone, a black one that felt right under his callused hands. It was better than the one he had had when he went to Patata. He held it, savoring the moment, proud in the knowledge that he could afford it. Then he saw the wrist watch.

It gleamed brightly from a box lined in velvet, small, bright, feminine. He thought of Maria, saw her, saw the watch on her slender arm. She did not have a watch. There wasn't a clock in her two rooms. She never knew what time it was, save by a certain instinct that told her to go to work, to eat, to go to sleep. Jerry pointed to the case.

"How much is that?" he said.

It cost more than the guitar. Jerry looked at it. He could buy it. He laid the guitar on the counter, turning his back on it. He lifted the tiny box containing the watch. There was hardly any weight to it.

"Wrap it up," he said.

He went back to the highways and a man's work. The summer sun stained his skin and the labor swelled his muscles. He had a sure feeling about Pedro now, and he did not have to think about him. He could take him when the time came, and he would. He thought more often of Maria. He had a present for her and he was patient.

It was the fall once more when Jerry Lawlor came back to Patata. The aspens were gold in the passes and the chili peppers were scarlet strings on the small houses and the huts. His job had come to an end with September, and he rode the back trail as he had ridden out, hitching a ride with a trucker. He stood on the main drag and he looked at Garcia's sign in the distance. It was late afternoon, too early for her to be going on the night trick yet. It wasn't reasonable that the wife of the boss would still be sick. Maria would not be working in the afternoon.

He strode out swiftly, slowed with the sudden thought that she might be gone from Patata; then speeded up again, impatient to know. The house and the yard were as he remembered them. No one had moved the crate on which he used to sit. Everything, like the Spanish joke she told him, was tomorrow; nothing ever got done today. He knocked on the door.

She was no longer young. The year had taken some of the rose tint from the ivory of her skin. Her eyes were not so bright and her mouth not so full. She was thinner and no electricity flowed from her. She opened the door and stood there, her clothes hanging limply on her. She did not know him.

"Don't you remember me, Maria?" he said.

"No." She stared at him impassively; then she leaned suddenly forward, her eyes widening in recognition. "Geromo! It is not possible!" Her hands darted out, her fingers digging into the hard ridges of his forearms. "I am so glad for you," she said. "I am afraid that you are dead."

"I could have been once."

There was swift fright in her eyes. "Why you come back?"

"Many reasons. To see you."

"No. Sit down, Geromo." She did not invite him in. Nothing was as he had planned. Jerry sat beside her on the crate. "You are strong," she said. "You have come back to look for Pedro. You must not. It was not his fault. He is a good man. I made him jealous and I knew it. It is the way of women."

Jerry knew then. He frowned, not looking at her. "He is a bum," he said curtly.

"No! You do not understand. One man digs the potato, makes a little money, gives it to a girl. It is all he has, very little. Another man says the little money of the potato is not enough for his girl. He has a big dream. He wants her to have many pretty things."

Jerry's fists tightened. "So he's a bum, without even potato money. He doesn't give her anything."

Maria's hand rested on his. "A woman does not care, my Geromo. It is good for her that he wants her to have many things. That is very good for a woman."

"It makes it easier for him too."

She shook her head. "No! It is harder for him, harder than to dig the potato."

There was patience in her voice, pleading in her eyes. She wanted him to understand, but Jerry Lawlor couldn't understand. He made a slashing, impatient gesture with his right hand.

"O.K.," he said harshly. "That's a Spanish joke. I'll laugh tomorrow maybe." He plunged his hand into his pocket. "I wanted you to have something pretty too. I brought you a present."

"A present?"

She turned to him, startled, and her voice was a child's voice, surprised, excited. He placed the tiny wrapped box in her hand. She stared at it for long seconds; then her hand closed on it possessively.

"I must have light to see it," she said. "It is getting dark here." She rose swiftly, hesitated a moment. "You come in with me, Geromo," she said.

He entered the room behind her, the room that he remembered so well. She turned on the small lamp on the dresser. The crucifix and the two lithographs were still on the walls. His cot was gone. So was her narrow iron bedstead. The room had a double bed now. The precious Certificado de Matrimonio, in a dime-store frame, hung below the lithograph of the Holy Family. Maria was tearing the wrapping from the box.

The wrist watch was gleaming glory against the dark velvet, a thing of flashing reflection, of daintiness, of femininity. Maria looked at it, hypnotized. Her eyes lifted slowly to Jerry's.

"I have never seen one so beautiful," she said. She thrust her left arm out. "Show me how it works, Geromo."

He wound the watch, and his fingers trembled when he fastened the strap clasp on her wrist. She held the watch away from her, looking at it, turning it one way and then another. She held it against her ear and listened to it tick. The clasp fascinated her and she played with it, opening it and snapping it shut.

"Geromo," she said, "I cannot talk."

He could not talk, either. The thought came back to him that he had known a year ago--that to enjoy the enjoyment of Maria was better than anything that he could have for himself. She took the watch off and put it on again, frowning slightly as she struggled with the clasp, smiling when she mastered it. She sighed at length, removed the watch from her wrist and replaced it carefully in the box. She held it, looking at it, then extended the box to Jerry.

"Geromo," she said, "you have made me very happy. All my life I will remember."

He stared at her, not comprehending. When he did not take the box, she tried to force it into his hand. "Someday," she said, "you will have a girl and you will give her this."

"I gave it to you."

She raised her face to him. Her eyes were wet. "It was very sweet. I will think of it and it will always be my present, Geromo. It will always be mine and I will think of it."

"You've got to keep it."

"No. I cannot." She shook her head slowly. "Never in all of his life can Pedro give me this. It is what he wants to do, Geromo, and he cannot do it."

There was finality in her voice. A fact was a fact and it could not be altered. When she looked at him there was mystery in her eyes, and the excitement was gone. She was no longer a child; she was a woman who knew that she was a woman and that he was still just a boy. Jerry accepted the box reluctantly, respecting something that he could not understand. He put it in his pocket, hesitated for a moment, and then looked up.

"Is there anything that I can do for you?" he said.

She smiled at him, "But no, Geromo. You have already done much more for me than you know. I will always love you a little."

She kissed him, holding his face between her warm palms for a moment; then she walked with him to the door.

He stood on the highway, waiting for a truck, and the lights were on in the town. He thought briefly of Pedro, no longer hating him, no longer caring. Yesterday was over and everything was tomorrow. This Pedro, whatever he was, had found the love of a woman. It was something that Jerry had yet to know something he might know one day.

It was a long wait for the truck, and he thought about Maria and understood for the first time the gentle sadness of "Adios, Mariquita Linda" that he had learned from vaqueros. His hand closed around the small package in his pocket.

The yellow lights of a truck gleamed on the highway then, and he raised his hand to them.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Barrett, Bill
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Words:5314
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