Friday, September 3, 2010

The High Life

In the 1970’s, my dad managed to make his way through the great state of Zacatecas, through the schizophrenic mountainous desert regions of northern Mexico and eventually found himself in the suburban pit of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley. His wife (my Ama) and his eight kids staying behind, anxiously waiting to be called on up into el norte like dirty-kneed third graders in a kickball line. He worked various jobs that, apparently, many middle-class Americans are hungry for today; as a bus-boy, a dish-washer, fruit-picker, weed-yanker. At some point in his American transition, he came across a man named Roy.

I’m very certain he had a last name to accompany that, however I don’t recall it, nor is it anything that would elevate his status of respect in my father’s mind like the Klark Kents or Bruce Waynes of the world. To me, to most of us, he was Roy.

Roy took my father under his wing and provided him with the best survival tools a migrant like my father could have in this dog town: a job and a grain of knowledge.

Eventually my father was able to bring my mother, brothers and sisters over the border in various, precarious ways; a couple of them crossing with my mother, a few of them with practical strangers. My sister Ana becoming a stranger to herself as her long thick hair was butchered turning her into a little Mexican Joan of Arc, entering the American battlefront as a transgender little soldier.

Roy moved my father and my family into an overwhelming property in Canoga Park for which he was the caretaker; the owner of said property having passed away and leaving her heirs at a loss for what to do with it. Even though the home was massive and we were allowed to stay in the mainstay, our parents strictly prohibited us from staying there. We were the groundskeepers and so would stay in the workers quarters; this was one of our first lessons in humility. The hills of the property were covered with rows of Orange trees, vast green lawns which my father carefully took care of and little garden oasis.’ It was a small paradise for such a humble family.

After a few years, the heirs decided to tear down this paradise of ours and turn them into town-homes.


My parents found a decently priced home in Pacoima, then still a growing family community, loaded us up into the Ford and moved us to the other side of the valley. My father had been working with Roy as a groundskeeper for many years and so my father continued on this career path as a gardener and landscaper.

He would wake up before the lazy sun itself would open its eye and head out to cut the lawns of attorneys, business men, rich women with rich husbands, shop owners and the woman with the cats.

Man, she had a lot of cats.

As a little girl, this is what I knew and loved. My father’s career wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t easy, to many – probably not respected. To me and my brothers and sisters, it was our American dream.

He would return from work and continue his duties around the house, keeping his own home in order, paying the bills, patting his children on his head. My father isn’t a relatively tall man, but in our eyes, he towered the trees that lined the street. His Tejana sitting on top of his head like a golden-straw crown, skin as tough as leather, moustache to be feared.

Even the sweat on his forehead glistened like itty-bitty diamonds.

I had one self-imposed chore getting home from school: wait for my apa to come home.

I had to make sure to sit in the front yard, in the living room or anywhere in earshot of his truck with the clank-clank of rakes strapped to the side as it came down the street; ears perking up like any child hearing the bells of an ice cream truck.

I knew that getting home from a long, hot day of work, my father only really wanted two things: his slippers and his Miller High Life.

It’s what let him know his work day was done, that he could relax and not have to worry about anymore “yes Ms., no Mister., cut grass? No blower? Trash today?” Arriving to this marked the finish line, he was at HIS home, with HIS family.

I was a fat little kid and I would still manage to run like a jack rabbit to get his slippers ready, jump up and grab his cold Miller High Life out of the fridge and wait for him at the door. I’d stand and watch as he sat on the bench outside and dust himself off, place his hat on the bench and start at the duty of yanking at the miniature ropes that were his laces. It would be an extra joy for me when he would let me help him untie his heavy, grass-stained work boots. 

My father’s feet would slip into the faux-fur lined slippers, which I always imagined felt like stepping on bouncy clouds, take the beer from my hand and sit in the front yard to take in what was his, smiling at us with his silver-capped teeth. 

Brilliant small stars of his internal universe.

Sometimes he would let me sit on his lap or lean my head on his shoulder and I would breathe in his smell. It wasn’t cologne, or the smell of his shaving lotion, nor the crisp fabric softener my mother used. It wasn’t even Irish Spring or Lava for that matter. It was the musky smell of skin, sweat, leather. 

It was the smell of earth and sun, of my family’s history.

My father is now long retired, strictly ordered to cease all labor-intensive activities by his doctors and his family; though if it were really up to him, he’d still be out climbing and trimming someone’s palm tree (and I probably would still be sitting on the couch waiting for the sound of clanking rakes.) While he rarely ever drinks his Miller High Life, he still sits in his front yard, wearing his slippers, taking in what is his. He feeds his Koi fish in his Koi pond, yanks at dead leaves in the garden, complains about the kids leaving their scooters in the middle of the street, tells us stories from Zacatecas, tears through religious books and jigsaw puzzles and talks about Roy, who passed away some time ago, fondly and with much respect, a man who was able to help my father build this high life that we can now drink in. 

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