Farmhouse in the Lanes

That afternoon the sun came down hard, but the wind came underneath, from the open llano, along with oppressive dust and force as the truckito moved over unpaved lanes beyond Blende, Colorado and it seemed to cool the old man’s sweaty face and neck if only for a moment. As far as the old man could see the lanes outside the passenger side window held multiple tracks and ruts but no footprints.

“This is a damn day for the sun, Manito,” the Abuelito Ortiz said. He pulled his handkerchief from his overall pocket, wiped at his burnt neck and set his arm on the exposed metal of the truckito’s hot door and as the young boy steered the Ford up the long slope of 27th Lane he looked back across the onion fields to where the old Montoya Farm and the old Musso’s Farm blew up their perpetual white dust, and on down to the western roadway towards the horizon and the highway to La Junta and Las Animas. Just across the campos, the blue Colorado sky was like a canvas propped over the hills and the remote houses of the valley.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the heat,” the boy said without looking at the old man, choosing to focus on the road and the destination ahead.

The old man continued to look out towards the western horizon. “This campo all belonged to the Montoya’s and the lettuce farmers,” he said. “We picked out here when the steel mill was on strike back in ’59. I ever tell you?”

“You talk to me and I got to watch the road,” the boy said. “I don’t like to drive when the dust is high like this, jefe.”

The old man glanced over at the boy who was struggling with the oversized steering wheel and the tree shifter. “You got good eyes, Manito,” the old man said. “When you’re young you got good eyes. But I drove these roads all my life, Manito, and I’ll tell you when the road curves. I’ll tell you.”

“I know,” the boy said.

“I used to drive out here when I worked for the Muzzo farm. Already had been driving for years when I was your age, Manito. Bringing home money.”

“You told me,” the boy said.

They passed an abandoned farm, with a long meadow where two geldings were running along the fence line downhill between Spruce trees.

“A man could make a living in those days,” the old man said. “Could earn a wage and pay rent and have money left over for a drink and for a woman.”

The boy nodded and shifted, making the transmission groan and grind as the clutch popped.

“Don’t have to shift so much, Manito,” the old man said. “Let the engine go until you lose speed. The engine knows what to do and she’ll tell you.”

“I know—“

“Then do it, cabrón. I only got one truckito and I want to keep it, no?” The old man, drummed on the door, grinning and then laughing to himself at the way the boy never took his eyes from the road when he talked. The way he overcompensated for each curve and bump.

The boy took his foot off the gas and shifted. “Maybe you should drive, jefe. I ain’t got no license.”

“Keep going, Manito. How do you learn the way unless you do it, you know?”

The old man freed a cigarillo from the pack in his overall pocket. He tamped the end before settling it just under his moustache on the edge of his leathered lips. He tried the dash lighter and then struck a match from a book in the glove compartment. The dark smoke spilled from his nostrils as he stared at the wild daisies and the wild grass growing in the lush fields and the shaded places, the dense weeds and the cactus building into the dense brush along the roadside. Just as the boy shifted again the truckito crawled out onto a side road near an abandoned farmhouse.

“See that casita, Manito?” the old man said. “That thing will stand there for years and years if you didn’t mess with it. I know the Maldanados who built it. I worked with them. I know all these houses. The old man was a carpenter and built that house with his sons and nephews. That’s how they did it in those days. Familia,” the old man said.

The boy pulled off the road into the long grass just behind the farmhouse. The brakes cried as the ride lurched to a stop. The air was warm and filled with the smell of heavy timber and crickets were chanting in the heat. The old man inhaled and filled the small compartment with the pungent smell of smoke. He leaned out the wide window and spit onto the edge of his cigarillo before throwing the vacha.  The old man stretched his muscles and made his bones crack. He stepped out to look across the broken walls and boards of the farmhouse that disappeared down into a deep brush.

“A man could lay down in the shade here on the side of the house and just sleep real nice,” the old man said. “If I lay down, Manito, will you do all the work for me?”

“Shoot,” the boy said. With a bucket of tools in his hand, the boy looked at him with respect and seriousness. He was prepared for the day of work ahead. “You shouldn’t be out in this heat anyway,” the boy said, and looked at the old man as if he wasn’t quite sure if he was joking but he was willing to do whatever his Abuelito said.

The boy had been that way since the father died and ever since the mother never returned from California. If the old man sat down, the boy brought his newspaper and his reading glasses. If the old man yawned and napped in his favorite chair in the living room, he covered the old man and took the pipe from his teeth. If he was hungry the boy would peel potatoes and warm tortallitas. It was all he had ever known to do.

After gauging the farmhouse and the surrounding scenery the old man reached in and got his thermos of coffee in one hand and his tool box with the other. He also grabbed at his lunchbox and an old blanket, struggling to place the necessities of the day under each arm.

“I’m not so old, Manito,” the old man said. “I’m not ready for the coffin just yet. Think the world had killed me since the steel mill?”

“I know. You still got it.” The boy nested the toolbox, hooked his arm through the lunchbox and then slung the blanket over his shoulder, gripped the thermos away from the old man.

“Here,” the boy said. “Give me some of them tools.”

All the way around the farmhouse and up the road the wind kicked up dirt under their feet.

“Nobody been around here in a while, Manito,” the old man said. “You can tell by the tracks.”

“No tracks on the side road neither.”

“Oy lo,” the old man said. “Muy chingon. What are you a tracker now? Muy Kit Carson. They teach you that in school?” the old man asked.

“They don’t teach me nothing in school, Grampo. I learn more riding with you and Tio Lolo.”

All the way up the road to the farmhouse the old man jerked his head at the perimeter, nervously and guiltily.

“Think somebody will come up on us, jefe?”

“No one comes out here,” the old man said. “Don’t nobody give a shit about this building. Nobody even knows it’s out here no more.”

“Be nice if nobody gives us no problems.”

“Nobody going to give us no problems, Manito,” the old man said. “This is my land. I own this bit of land, Manito. I pay the taxes. It’s mine.”

The boy nodded his head and listened intently. He acted as if he knew this answer the whole way out from town.

“This farmhouse and the wood is all mine,” the old man said. “As far as I figure it.” 

They came out front of the building to what looked like a meadow of weeds and rusted machine parts. The farmhouse that had once stood proudly was now a ruined foundation overgrown with weeds and roots. The flood of 1966 had scooped a path a hundred yards long near the front of the farmhouse. Nearby tree trunks crisscrossed the area—some trees were dead and others looked half-dead.

“I’ve got my mind ready for some work, Manito,” the old man said. “We can get some good money for some of this lumber. Not much here but what we can pull down will give us some nice pay.”

The boy nodded.

“You’ll be eating steak tonight, Manito.”

The boy was inspecting the boards and the ancient wood. “There’s nails too, jefe. Should we get the nails?”

“The wood is what I’m interested in, Manito.”

Before the boy could say anything the old man had stripped off his shirt down to the white undershirt and was hammering out rusted nails and prying at boards.  

By the time half of the truckito bed was full, the heat had worsened and the wind had shifted so that the Westside of the farmhouse cut most of it off and it was cool in the long shade. They went back into the shade by the foundation and ate lunch and drank sweetened coffee from the thermos. Then the boy struggled down on to the blanket over the hard ground and whistled playfully as he looked up at the sky. The old man sat on top of broken foundation and drank at the mason jar of water. The wind came in through the open shafts where the boards had been stripped and taken down. Down the view the farmhouse once held, the campos looked like great rolling plains of brown and scattered greens. Out towards the small town of Blende the houses were white and red cubes on the horizon strung far out on a small string of road.

“I used to take your father out here,” the old man said.

“I know,” the boy said. “My homeboy Lolo tells me everything—“

And then the old man slapped the boy’s head. With all his years and weight he connected with a pretty vicious open hand slap that made the boy’s head jerk. “Your Tio was never worth a damn for work,” the old man said.

The boy looked down and didn’t say a word. He kept the tears deep inside of him.

“I’m telling you about your father. Lolo’s not your father.” The old man then handed the jar of cool water to the boy. “What’ll you do when I’m not around to tell you the truth? Seems like half the people in this family forget, you know? I gotta keep it all straight for you, Manito.” The old man leaned back and lit another cigarillo. He took another drink from the thermos top and then spit some of the coffee out onto the hard clay. “Soon I’ll never be able tell you these things. I’m old, Manito,” he said. “I used to work all day from early till the sun came down and then I would pull up the headlights from the truckito and keep going. I could make deliveries up and down the lanes here to every farm and ranch around here with only a bottle of ice water with me, Manito.”

The old man leaned farther back and the boy could see the strain coming into his face and neck. The old man didn’t move or shift his weight but his voice rose sharply and loudly. “All I am saying is watch who you respect, boy,” the old man said. “I’m telling you about your father, Manito?” 

“Yes, sir, jefe.”

“So don’t forget that, boy,” the old man said.  “Lolo my ass, Manito.”

“Okay,” the boy said.

“That Lolo don’t even work and he’s got kids and no wife,” the old man said. “A damn habit.”

“Habit”, the way he said it, like an incurable disease only leading to one inevitable end.

“Shit. I wouldn’t have stole as much as an apple.”

Later in the afternoon the old man lit another cigarillo and smiled and coughed up past the falling roof of the farmhouse, up towards the blue sky and the tops of the nearby spruce and maple trees. The old man wheezed and closed his eyes. Soon he was on the ground and dozing and the boy gently took the cigarillo from the old man’s lips. He took his own slow drag before leaning back against the foundation.

A good hot stiff wind was now shifting and breaking through the two workers. For a long while the boy stood there sweating and staring at the old man’s siesta. First, he thought of taking the truck and running. Slipping away to Lolo’s duplex and a sea of rum and RC Colas—cartons of cigarettes in the Frigidaire. Then he thought of the tire iron and bashing the old man while he slept to find a small freedom—stranger spirits had been in Colorado—but out here in the lanes, the boy also thought, it was so quiet and far from everything that can get to you. He quickly knew why the old man liked to drive out here. For a while he sat there and felt his own pulse in his body as he finished up the cigarillo. He felt the clouds move overhead and his brow started to cool and the sweat continued to fall down his temples and cheeks. And soon there were tears and sobs to choke on until he finally filled his lungs with the odor of heat and dust before heading back to the job of wood and crowbar. 

He worked very fast, wanting to surprise the old man with the number of boards in the bed of the truckito and when, after an hour, he worked back toward the side where the old man was snoring. He had the truckito’s bed filled and he was surprised. He liked the coarseness to his hands and he liked the way his sweat-soaked white undershirt felt cool on his skin. Down on his knees he was prying at a stubborn nail and board when the old man came up quietly behind and watched the boy struggle and strain the crowbar to recover the board. The old man leaned in and placed his hand to the boy’s shoulder.

“How’s it going, Manito?” the old man said. The old man had his shirt back on and another cigarillo in his mouth.

“I got more on this one to do but I filled the truck, Jefe,” the boy said.

“You’re doing fine,” the old man said. He was watching the boy’s arms and the dark skin of his neck covered in sweat. The way the boy gripped the metal crowbar and persistently worked at the rusted nails. “You’re doing fine.”



John Paul Jaramillo grew up in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico and received his MFA from Oregon State University. Currently, he is Associate Professor in the Arts and Humanities Department of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield Illinois as well as fiction editor of the Lincoln Land Review.