by John DeSimone
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: March 10th 2020
Rare Bird Books
A high school senior, Jack Duncan dreams of playing college baseball and leaving the political turmoil of the agricultural town Delano behind. Ever since his father, a grape grower, died ten years earlier, he’s suspected that his mother has been hiding the truth from him about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. With his family’s property on the verge of a tax sale, Jack drives an old combine into town to sell it. On the road, an old friend of his father shows up with evidence that Jack’s father was murdered. Armed with this new information, Jack embarks on a mission to discover the entire truth, not just about his father but the corruption endemic in the Central Valley. When Jack’s girlfriend warns him not to do anything to jeopardize their post-graduation plans and refuses to help him, Jack turns to his best friend, Adrian, the son of a boycotting fieldworker who works closely with Cesar Chavez. The boys’ dangerous plan to rescue the Duncan family farm leaves Adrian in a catastrophic situation, and Jack must step up to the plate and rescue his family and his friend before he can make his escape from Delano. The Road to Delano is the path Jack and Adrian must take to find their strength, their duty, their destiny.
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he voices from the fields woke Jack early on Saturday. The musky odor of grapes sifted into his bedroom even though his closed window was shut to the morning cold. He pulled back the drape and row upon row of trellised vines emerged from the gauzy twilight. They stretched to the horizon on three sides of his house. He thrust the window up and leaned out, and a biting wind chilled his face. Thick dark clouds filled the sky, and the voices of workers trimming and bundling echoed in the morning stillness. In these quiet moments, he imagined the land calling to him. Did it matter anymore that all of it was gone?
“Jack, you up?” his mother called from downstairs.
Off to the east, a red bruise ran across the rugged spine of the Sierra peaks. The air heavy with moisture, it was time to get on the road before a storm rolled in.
Jack slipped into his jeans and plaid shirt, tall and sinewy, hardened from work and sports. Ella, his girlfriend, always told him he never fought his clothes like some guys; they moved with him. He didn’t know what to say when she said things like that. He brushed back his blond crew cut and stooped to tie his boots, then he snatched his sheepskin coat off the hook by the door. His mother called again.
The day was already half gone from the tone of her voice.
In the kitchen, he grabbed a piece of toast, slurped some coffee, and bolted outside.
He mounted the cab of his father’s dirt-splattered combine parked by the rickety porch of the Victorian, now tired and sagging. Jack fired it up and the engine idled under his throttle foot. The strong pulses surprised him after all those years of sitting idle. He revved it up, ready to make its last run into Delano.
The cab of the boxy, once-bright yellow combine, now the peeling paint, was pocked with rust, perched over the rotary thresher blade in front, raised for road travel. The square separation box that stripped the stalks of their grain pods hunched behind him. Most of the gauges worked—fuel, oil, temp, volts. He flicked on the headlights in the gray morning, two above on the cab’s roof and two below, illuminating the rusting threshing blade.
“Mr. Lacy’s waiting for you.” His mother stood on the porch, her arms crossed over her chest. Her back erect, and her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, still marked with the leanness of one who worked the land.
Despite his sheepskin coat with the collar up and a knit cap over his crew cut, the damp chill sunk through. He tugged on the rim of his cap, snugging it tight, ready to go. The importance of the moment weighed on him. She was counting on him. He eyed the road at the end of the drive.
“I’m expecting you back by ten.” Tall and pensive, she studied him with her steely gaze. Fatigue, worry, or both, Jack wasn’t certain, had settled around her eyes, etching thin branches that fanned out to her temples. “Don’t stop for anybody. If any of those strikers get in your way, just plow through them, you hear?”
He nodded, but he wouldn’t be plowing through anyone. With this beast on the road, folks naturally gave way.
Standing on the porch with an expectant look in her eyes, she suddenly appeared younger, fresh-faced and fearless, the way she must have looked to his father before he went off to work his fields. Before their life had become unraveled and they had to sell everything, down to the last working piece of the old ranch to keep a roof over their heads.
He ran his hand over the control panel. This is where his father used to sit. He gripped the wheel. Somehow, it had become a measuring device for what his father had missed all these years. The baseball games he had never seen Jack play, the fun they never had together. He pushed down hard on the brake pedal and fiddled with the front rotor switch. If he spun these blades, would they speak to him? Maybe there was some lever here he could pull that would fill in all the blanks in his life, that would tell him why his father had left them to their own fates. He shook his head. He was just fooling himself—there was no way of knowing what his life would have been like with his father around. Now was an excellent time to be rid of this memory-laden contraption.
A shaft of brightness broke through. Shielding his eyes, he squinted into the sun peeking from behind an ominous bank of blackbottomed clouds. He had to get moving before the sky broke open.
Ella waited in her black-and-gold trimmed El Camino under the spreading oak tree at the front of the yard. She had agreed to follow him. If the machine broke down, she could drive him into town for help. Ella waved, and her long brown hair caught in the rising wind, covering her face. They had met their sophomore year, and now they both were graduating in June. He signaled back, released the brake, and eased out the clutch, which gave off a whiny clank as he shifted into first. The boxy contraption rolled forward, rattling and jiggling, out of the yard.
He turned into County Road 33, a hard-packed dirt road. A chill damp wind kicked harder against his face. He passed the Dakota family’s fields that already sprouted a spring crop in some of the straightest rows he had ever seen. The air smelled of dark earth, freshly upturned and dark with moisture. The sun ducked in and out from behind a bank of black-bottomed clouds blowing right at him.
He had driven in this weather. It wasn’t pleasant, but the land had never swallowed him whole. It was eight miles to Delano and Lacy’s Tractor dealership. About an hour and a half drive if he trotted this beast.
The wind whipped his face. At one time, the cab had side windows, but they had long ago disappeared. The windshield had one working wiper. The rubber blade had rotted away, but it might help some. He pressed the accelerator, taking it up to six miles per hour, but the motor cowling behind him vibrated violently, so he eased off.
His mother’s angst over driving these roads in a rickety combine wasn’t hard to understand. These weren’t the easiest of times around Delano. She wouldn’t stop reminding him of what had happened just last week down the road. Thugs had waylaid a carload of strikers and busted out their windshield, their headlights, and threatened their lives unless they left the county. But no one would bother a guy in a combine going about his business.
A muddy road was the biggest threat. If the combine got stuck in the mud, it would take a couple of tow trucks to yank it out. Something his mother couldn’t afford. She needed every penny to open her shop.
After crossing over Highway 99, County Road 33 turned into Cecil Road. The road was a straight shot into town, but the combine was too wide to take directly into town, so he would need to hang a right on D Street, and then turn left onto Kelly Avenue. Lacy’s Tractor Dealership was right on the corner of Kelly Street and F Street. It would be an easy drive.
Ella drove close behind with her lights on. He made the turn on D Street, and it was a straight run down a freshly graveled dirt road that gently undulated with the land. It sliced through pastureland. Drainage gullies ran along each side.
The rain began in sporadic windswept sheets. He buttoned up his jacket, pulling the sheepskin collar tighter against him. Heavy rain beat in slanting waves on the thin roof. The wind whipped water into his face, soaking his jacket, running down his jeans. He gritted his teeth and leaned forward peering into the gray. Already runoff gathered in shallow pools in the road.
He switched on the wiper. It smeared the water around in a blurry mess, so he shut it off. The road softened, and the big machine wobbled on the uneven road, threatening to bog down. He gunned the motor and squinted to see through the deluge. Once, then again, the tall slick tires slipped in the soggy earth, and the cab rocked in the wind. He willed the machine to keep moving, hunched forward over the wheel, face to the stinging wind.
The clouds lowered and heaved toward him. He held the machine steady on the center crown. If the motor didn’t die on him, he could make Delano before he froze or drowned. He plowed slowly through a puddle halfway up the tires, feathering the clutch and gas to keep moving. Not too fast so the tires wouldn’t dig in.
At a deeper depression, he trotted the combine down the muddy slope, slow and steady, keeping his progress firm, until the left rear tire lost traction. A swift current pushed him to the right. Downshifting to first, he throttled it up, easing the clutch out until the front wheels of the boxy machine plowed on. The motor strained as he gassed it. The rear wheels grabbed, and he slushed forward up and out of the mud onto the graveled road.
The El Camino stopped at the opposite edge. He halted and leaned out of the cab. She would never make it through. Ella yelled at him from the half-open door. The rain swiftly plastered her hair to her face. She would backtrack to the 99. Get off the dirt road, and wait for him where Kelly Street crossed under the 99. That’s where the pavement began. He waved her off and moved on. If he stayed in one place too long, the combine would sink. He had to push on.
Rain pelted him in windswept sheets, obscuring his sight to just feet. Creeping along he saw two red eyes staring at him off to his right through the watery veil. He cupped his hand over his eyes, blinking away the water. Could be a driver standing on his brake pedal, run off the side of the road. He rolled closer. Sure enough, it was a white Cadillac, late fifties, with a black landau top. Its rear taillights were two bullets of red in the gloom, and the front wheels were off the road in the water-filled gully. The tail fins stuck out into the road like an artifact from space half buried in the mud. He crept up beside it. Was someone hurt?
The driver door opened and a man in a three-piece suit stepped into the downpour. He wore a black fedora that shed water off in sheets. Obscured by the brim of cascading water, the man stood tall in the rain as if it were a sunny day, grasping a silver metallic attaché case like Mr. Franks his math teacher at school used.
A fool city boy for sure. He would drown out here behaving like that. Jack inched the machine closer to the tall, lean man, dressed like a slicker among the pastures. The rain slacked a bit, and the man lifted his chin and gave Jack a steady gaze. He did not seem at all distressed.
Jack leaned toward him. “You look familiar, Mister. Do I know you?”
The man touched the brim of his hat, “Herm Gordon. I’ve known you since you were a child, but you probably don’t remember me. I was a friend of your father.”
Sure, the man in the photos with Dad in the farm office. The guy with his arm around Dad in the plowed field. Jack set the brake. The combine idled. A bright beam broke through a patch of dark sky.
He clambered down into the muddy road. Herm extended his open palm ignoring the fact he was being soaked by a downpour. They shook. “Pleased to finally meet you, Jack.”
“If you need a lift, hop on the running board, Mr. Gordon. I can take you into Delano.”
“I don’t need a ride, Jack. I have something for you.” He held out the silver briefcase. “Could you step into my car for a few moments?
I want to show you some important documents that pertain to your father. Then you can be on your way.”
He patted the case. Water dripped off his flat brim down his shoulders. “We don’t have a lot of time, Jack.”
Jack shook his head at the craziness. The rain slowed, and he sighed thinking about stopping for some fool in an ill-fitting suit. But this wasn’t just any old guy. Herm Gordon was a longtime friend of the family. He looked the same from the photos, only with creases down his cheeks.
“I’ve got to get this machine into Delano before it floods. Do we have to do this now?”
“I need to show you this before you sell the combine.”
Jack stepped back a pace. “How’d you know about that?”
“Heavens, Jack, Chuck Lacy over at Lacy’s Tractor is one of my best friends. I worked for him for more than forty years. He mentioned your predicament to me. I knew you’d come right down this way since this is the most direct route into Delano for big farm equipment. Besides—,” his voice broke off for a moment as if lost in a memory, taking in the creaky machine that idled just a few feet from him. A note of sadness flickered across the man’s eyes.
“Besides what, Mister?
“I sold this thing to your dad. What, thirty years ago, now.” The man turned to the road. “We drove it right along here to get it to your place.”
“And you know why we have to sell this?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“Everyone knows, Jack. The county published the tax sale notice in the papers. But that’s not the point. Lacy told me you’d be bringing it in today, so I figured this is where’d I’d get a chance to talk. I know why you shouldn’t have to sell it.”
Jack edged forward. “What?”
“Time’s slipping away, Jack. If you don’t show up soon in Delano, your mother will be on the phone with the sheriff. But before you sell that machine, I have some information for you. You need to know the truth about your father. Besides, it looks like the suns coming out and the road will be drier soon if you wait it out a bit.”
Jack lifted his cap and wiped the water from his face. What good would it do to bring that up now? He had to get to Delano. Jack stared at the man. He couldn’t completely stifle his curiosity about his father.
“What do you know about my dad?”
Herm Gordon patted the case and turned to the Cadillac DeVille. The big car angled off the road with its right front wheel in the ditch and the left on the lip of the slope. To reach the drivers’ door, you had to step into the muddy ditch, but the back door was an easy step right off the road. Herm opened the DeVille’s back door, the interior dark and inviting. He motioned for Jack to enter.
“How long’s this going to take?”
“Not more than five.”
Jack studied the road ahead. The rain had lifted, and the car and combine lay in a patch of warming yellow light. Ahead, clouds of fog gathered on the road. If he waited five minutes, the way would firm up, and the mist could blow off. But he’d need to get going before the Tule fog set in.
The combine’s motor sounded strong and would idle just fine for five minutes. Jack slid into the back seat and sank into the plush upholstery. The air smelled sweet like cherry tobacco.
“I’m sorry about the water and the mud, Mr. Gordon.” The car was warm and dry and felt comfortable after that jittering ride.
“Don’t worry about that, Jack.” He settled in and slammed the heavy door. The dark brown upholstery with brocade ropes across the back of the seats made him feel like he was in a rich man’s limousine. He had seen cars like this in town but never been in one. He glimpsed the combine out the back window, but he couldn’t hear it. The quiet was eerie but pleasant.
Herm took off his fedora and tossed it in the front seat. He wiped back his gray hair, wringing out the water. He retrieved two hand towels from the front seat, handed one to Jack.
“Take off your coat and dry yourself off,” Herm Gordon said. “You’ll be more comfortable.”
Jack didn’t want to, but it had become soggy. He shrugged out of it and laid it on the front seat, then dried his face and hands. Herm flopped down the hand rest between the seats and put the case flat between them. He snapped the two latches, lifting the lid toward Jack. Gordon rifled through papers inside the case, looking for something, his eyes crinkling with concentration.
“Here it is.” Herm pulled out a thick manila envelope.
Jack fidgeted. Had he made a mistake getting in the car? He should go right now, get on with his trip.
“What’s so urgent I’ve got to see it right now?”
“Patience, my boy.” Gordon opened the flap. With one eye on Jack, Herm slid out a document, stamped with official seals and signatures.
“This is a copy of San Francisco PD’s police report.”
“Why don’t you come by the house and show this stuff to my mom? She’s the one who would want to see it.”
Herm spoke low and deliberate. “Your mother’s seen it.” He slid the police report back in the envelope and set it on top of the silver case. “I think you ought to know the truth about your father.”
“What truth?” Jack ground his teeth as he studied Herm’s face. This man knew his father well. There were photos of the two all over the farm office wall. It was likely the man knew something his mother would never tell him. His mother probably had already told him everything she planned to say about his father. She had a reluctance to give him too many details about how they lost the land. That had always bothered him. Here in the oddest of place, at this crucial moment, the truth just happened to meet him on the road.
He tried to figure if Herms showing up here was a coincidence or an answer to what he’d always craved.
He turned and eyed the combine through the back window. He couldn’t hear it, but he could see it vibrating as it idled in the road. The machine would be just fine while the road dried.
“Jack.” Gordon fixed his tan eyes on him, clear like the wind sweeping over a ripening wheat field. “You need to know how your mother lost her land.”
“She always told me Dad lost it in a card game.”
“He never gambled that night.”
“The night he died,” Herm said. “He gave up gambling when he married your mother. I know that for a fact.”
Jack caught himself gaping at the man’s words. His mother had always told him his father had fallen into his old habits of gambling and drinking. There was something strange about her story and that old man Kolcinivitch would end up owning his dad’s 4,000 acres of grape fields over a card game.
“Tell me, Mr. Gordon. Was my dad drinking the night he died?”
Herm tapped the document. “Read the police report and decide for yourself what he was doing.”
Jack slowly lifted the report. “What does this all have to do with me selling the combine today?”
Gordon tightened his lips. “You’re a lot like your daddy, Sugar, you know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“I’ve watched you play, Jack. You’re good.”
Jack had seen him at some of his games, watching from the top of the bleachers. In a town with little entertainment, it wasn’t unusual to see farmers, kids, and families satisfy their love of sports watching where they could.
“You have the tools to be good, Jack, and you know it. You’re so much like Sugar at times it takes my breath away watching you.”
“He was a gambler. He lost everything.”
“Farming is the biggest gamble of all time, young man. Every farmer in the valley risks a dollar to make a nickel. He was a good man. A real good man. He tried to stand up to what’s been going on in the valley a long time now.”
“What about his card playing?”
“It was a gift. You should be so lucky.”
Jack scoffed at that and turned to the window. This old man had a loose tile or two. Jack opened the door a crack edging over to leave. Herm gripped Jack’s damp arm and held him tight.
Gordon narrowed his gaze at Jack. “Just take a minute and read this police report. It’ll clear up some stories you’ve heard about your father.”
“Let go of my arm.” Jack didn’t fear for his safety, he could break this old coot in two if he had to. With the door open, he could hear the combine’s motor purring strong. He tried to twist away, but the old man’s grip was solid.
With his free hand, Herm Gordon opened the case and then slammed it shut. “Here’s what you need to get back your land.” He slapped something down on the case but kept it covered with his hand. Jack ceased struggling, eyes glued to the case.
Gordon slowly removed his hand and released Jack at the same time.
A deck of Bicycle playing cards. “They’re Sugar’s.”
More clouds rolled in and the day turned gray, a low mist lingering on the road.
“What do I do with those?”
“You’ll know soon enough.”
Jack gave him a hollow smirk. “You’re crazy.”
“Give me your baseball cap?” Herm said, his eyes now bits of coal.
He hesitated, but the old man fixed him with a hard stare until Jack handed it over.
Gordon took the cap then set the cards in Jack’s lap. He tapped the report. “Read the first couple of pages. It’s a long report. They interviewed a lot of folks. Then you can be on your way. The sun is out. It’s better you waited. You’ll make good time to Delano.”
Jack slammed his door shut. The quietness returned. The air thickened with the closeness of something he always feared, knowing the truth. Herm eyed him. Jack scanned the first page. Under the logo of the SFPD was his father’s name and address. His pulse quickened. Why hadn’t he ever seen this?
“Jack, this’ll take just another minute,” Herm Gordon said. “I have something in the trunk to give you before you leave. I’ll be right back.” Herm’s door opened and slammed shut.
Jack leafed through the thick report. So many details here from the night his father died. The trunk popped. A commotion of thuds and clangs sounded like Herm throwing junk around looking for something. What did he have in there?
He stared at the cramped writing on the first page. He held it up to his window to read it. By the second page, hotness seeped out of his gut and settled in his upper chest. By the third page, it smashed upward into his throat and face, flushing his cheeks.
If this was true, she had been lying to him for the last ten years. His father hadn’t been gambling. The night he died, he had given a speech that made people angry. The report wasn’t clear why they were angry.
A fight broke out. Someone had punched his father, who fell. The hotel staff called the cops.
What followed was page after page of eyewitness accounts. His father had been seen leaving the conference hall in a heated conversation with a group of men. What men? It didn’t say. There were no reports of gambling or drinking as Jack had always been led to believe.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. All the baseball games Dad had missed. Why? A sharp pain filled him as if he had opened the door to a room he dreaded entering.
Who were these men? He didn’t know how long he sat in the darkness, eyes closed in a rigid fear. Why would his mother keep all of this from him? What was that speech about that bothered so many of the men? Peering through the front windshield, he caught the tail end of green and yellow smudge far down the road on its way to Delano.
He scrambled out of the car just in time to see the combine, faded green and yellow, disappearing into the swirling mists of the billowing Tule fog that swallowed the road.
Yanking the driver’s door of the Cadillac open, he reached to start the engine. No key in the ignition. Frantically he searched the floor, the glove box, in the crevices of the seat, everywhere he could think. It took him another minute to realize even his coat from the front seat was missing. He climbed out and stared up and down at the empty road. Not a sound. Man and machine had disappeared into the mist. Jack could chase him for days and never find him. The county was a spider web of innumerable farm roads, spreading in every direction. But he had to find that combine.
He stooped to pick up something on the road. A suit jacket. Herm Gordon’s jacket. What was that guy up to? Why would he take Jack’s sopping jacket and hat and leave his suit coat? He dropped it in the mud. How did he explain this to his mom?
“What have I done?” he said loud enough so that the black and white mottled-faced Holsteins by the wire fence lifted their heads and stared at him with their milky eyes.
John DeSimone is a novelist, memoirist, and editor. He’s co-authored bestselling memoirs, The Broken Circle: A memoir of escaping Afghanistan, and others. He taught writing as an adjunct professor at Biola University, and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for nearly twenty years. His novel, The Road to Delano, is a coming of age novel set during the Delano grape strike led by Cesar Chavez. BookSirens said, “It’s more than a little Steinbeck, in a good way….” He lives in Claremont, Ca, and can be found on the web at www.johndesimone.com
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