We're walking the orange groves behind the trailer where my granddaughter lives. I love to walk the groves. I'd sneak a few into my pockets if they weren't so small and green.
The family has told me you can catch a big fine for that, but I used to do it a lot when I was in California visiting my mother in the mental hospital. Now I walk with Ellie, who is beginning to bloom into a woman. She’s twelve going on thirteen, I think.
We follow the irrigation canal so we don't get lost. It’s March, it’s in the mid seventies, and you can’t find a cloud in the sky. Every now and then we see the giant metal wheels they use to turn the sluices to redirect the water down secondary canals and fully irrigate these trees with Rio Grande river water.
Ellie wants to talk about her father, who she hasn't seen in five years. Ellie has always amazed me that she can be so open about her feelings. Today she wears her long brown hair – the exact color as mine – in a ponytail.
"Why did my dad leave?" she asks, looking up at me with her lovely heartbreaking brown eyes.
"Have you asked your mother?" I answer. This is not a subject I wish to discuss. I don’t want to create any misunderstandings or pain.
"My mom says it was drugs."
"I don’t know," I say. “My son James did have his problems with drugs.”
I pick up a small stone and throw it across the irrigation canal. "You think you can throw one over?"
Ellie looks around and picks up six small stones. She easily throws them over the canal. Each one she throws harder than the other.
"I never saw my father on drugs."
"You hardly saw him, I bet. He was gone most the time, driving one of those big rigs thousands of miles away. He went to Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles. He carried the map of this entire nation in his head."
"He didn't do really bad drugs, did he?" Ellie asks again. She takes hold of my hand. She'll soon be an age, I speculate, when she won't hold her grandfather's hand.
"Well, Ellie, I believe he has given up drugs. I don’t even think he took the things truckers take to not fall asleep while driving. Maybe he drinks a few beers now and then, but you see James didn't want to go back to jail. Twice being locked up in city and county jails was enough for him."
"Was my dad a bad man?"
"No, Ellie, your dad was the sweetest boy. He carried a lot of feelings and was sensitive. I think my divorce from his mom messed him up bad, plus my second wife's kids, who were older than he, were into drugs and he thought they were cool and copied them. Now he won’t even go see those kids. He says they’re unhappy losers. You know a lot of good people go to jails, like Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.
"Why won't he come home? Why won't call me on the phone, or at least write a letter?"
"These are complicated things, hon. I don't know if my words can explain it. All I know is his side of the story."
"I want to know his side."
"I don't know. I don't think it will do you any good."
"You'll just switch from blaming him to blaming your mother, and I've always found your mother a good woman. You got to understand they’re no schools that teach you to be a good dad. It’s guesswork. You don’t know what you’re doing most the time.”
"Will you tell me his side if I promise not to get mad at my mother?"
"Maybe you could write him a letter, give it to me, and I can get it to him."
"I could do that, if you tell me why he left."
"Well, Ellie, you know your mom isn't much into housework, right?"
"I know. She always waits till the last minute. She says if I need a clean dish to eat, just wash one."
"Does she still lie around the house reading romance novels all the time?"
"She used to, till James left. Then she had to go to work at the Edinburg Nursing Home. I think it’s done her good. She’s lost a lot of weight."
"Your mom's a Catholic?"
"I think so, but nobody goes to church."
"And you heard somehow about the DNA test?"
"You mean that my brother is not James's boy and my mom lied and pretended he was when he was born. I listened at the door to their whisperings.”
"James got tired of cleaning up when he came back from a long haul. He got tired of being called "ungodly" because he hadn't been baptized in the Catholic Church. He got tired of your older brother saying he would not obey James because he was not his father. All this stuff happened when you were small. It's not your fault. I know James loves you. Will you now write me that letter to give to him? Write it by hand, not on the computer, where your mother will find it. Can you do that? I’ll be here two more days. Give the letter to me and I’ll get it to James.
“Why can’t he call?”
“He worries your mom will send your uncle after him. Jesse’s a pretty tough cop, you know. He prevented James from leaving the first time he tried, and Jesse’s got cop friends all over the state.
"I don't know. It’d be hard. What do I say? You know I hate him, grandpa. I hate him and miss him at the same time.”
"That’s all right, sweetheart. You have a right to be angry. Try not to hate if you can because they hate will do you harm and won’t touch him.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don't have to write a letter, honey. You spend a lot of time with Jesse after school in the evenings, right? James says your brother told him Jesse was his father. He didn’t mean it biologically, but Jesse is the one who cares for him because James is gone driving so much. Maybe you can write the letter later, sweetheart. Your father’s a loving man. He's just not in a place now where he can love you in person."
"I think we should start back, grandpa. See those dark clouds to the north."
"You're right. You’ve got sharp eyes. Hey! Do you see that big bird up a ways in the canal. Where did it come from?”
“It’s a heron, grandpa. They sometimes fly in from the sea.”
“I never saw a heron the color of a rainbow. Look, he’s got an orange half tucked under his wing, and he’s trying to eat it.”
And then hand and hand we find ourselves flying over the canal and over flatlands of mesquite with dirt roads crisscrossing, flying and flying long distances in short instants, until we land far away in the back of the trailer with tall pecans around it where her father James lives. And as we land I say, “There’s your dad coming out the back door now. Run up to him, call him dad and tell him you love him.”