From the novel Frosted Glass
In the lovely orchard lands of Oregon’s Hood River Valley, in the shadow of the diamond white volcano, there lived a proud and prosperous grower of pear trees named Esteban Ochoas. Esteban possessed a generous, joyous spirit, but one forever marked by the loss of his wife, Lucia, ten years before. Lucia had perished in a car accident, forced off a snowy mountain road by an out-of-control big rig. Ever since that morning when the sheriff had come to Esteban’s door, his soul had been touched by shadows.
Rather than seek the miracle of marital bliss a second time, Esteban chose to focus his attentions on his farm, and on his lovely daughter, Angelina. The love between father and daughter was so strong that, after Angelina earned her business degree at a college in Portland, she passed up the big glass buildings of that city in order to return to the farm and keep her father’s books. Doubly blessed by his daughter’s business sense and his ability to speak with his migrant workers in their native tongue, Esteban built the most successful family-owned orchard in the valley. The old man’s happiness knew no bounds.
Intent on keeping their jobs with such an excellent and kind boss, the farmworkers took note of the bond between father and daughter and drew in any thoughts about Angelina. There was one, however, who had more trouble with this task than most.
Pedro Poncilla had arrived at the farm ten years before – in fact, soon after the death of the boss’s wife. He was an illegal immigrant from Guadalajara with a sharp mind and a great desire to prove himself as a worker. He was profoundly moved by the grief he saw in the farmowner’s eyes, and resolved to care for the orchards as if they were his own.
Even through the fog of his loss, Esteban Ochoas knew a remarkable young man when he saw one. He rewarded Pedro’s unfailing labor by helping him obtain a green card, and then his American citizenship, and, finally, by promoting him to the job of foreman. Pedro thus became one of three workers who remained on the farm year-round, in a clean little cottage next to the south orchard.
From his front window, Pedro could look across the front lot of the farm and see the large window of Angelina’s office, where she sat late at night reviewing the farm’s paperwork. This ready vantage of the prize he could not have – her pillowed lips, cave-dark eyes, hair that shone like blackbird’s wings – was not particularly good for Pedro’s health.
Five years into his torment, Pedro thought about leaving. He could always hide his real reasons by making up some fib about an ailing grandmother in San Bernardino. He was soon granted a reprieve, however, in the person of Gustavo, a bespectacled migrante who was always spending his breaks and lunches with his nose buried in a book. Curious, Pedro asked Gustavo what was so compelling about these books. Gustavo handed him the volume he was reading just then – a collection of poetry by a man named Miguel Hernandez – and said, “Why don’t you read this, and then you can tell me.”
Reading at his front window that night, the halo’d vision of Angelina across the yard, Pedro could not believe the things that he discovered in the pages of Gustavo’s book. Why, these were not normal Spanish words at all – they were like tropical birds the colors of Christmas ornaments, scrambling around in his head and taking him to wild, impossible landscapes. And all the next day, working in the orchards, the words of Miguel Hernandez continued to burn in his limbs, investing every small action with the goldenrod aura of new knowledge.
After consuming the dozen volumes in Gustavo’s collection, Pedro took off each Saturday morning to pedal his squeaky old bike to the biblioteca in Hood River and gather more: Cesar Vallejo, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Una Muno, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Soon enough, Pedro found that he, too, carried the poetic impulse, that he, too, could make his language fly like birds – though at lower altitudes, and with feathers much plainer. Still, he found that he could use his rough new skills as a way to tap off his irresolvable feelings about Angelina. He found a café near the biblioteca where he could spend hours reading his latest discovery and then translating that same sort of magic into his own writing, filling notebook after notebook with tributes to forbidden love.
Alas! Just about the time that Pedro had come to terms with his plight, he left the café one Saturday to discover Angelina’s red truck parked across the street in front of the grocery store. The following week, he noticed the truck’s arrival, and all the next month he made a study of Angelina’s deeply entrenched routine. She would park outside the grocery just before eleven, walk down the street to do various errands, and then return at about one o’clock to do her grocery shopping.
This two-hour window was too much for Pedro to ignore, for here lay the opportunity to express his love directly, and yet maintain his anonymity. He would arrive in town at ten o’clock and carefully lock his bicycle out of sight, next to a tree behind the café. At noon, he would go next door to the florist shop, where a kindly old Anglo woman named Mabel would sell him a single blossom - a carnation one week, a rose the next, always changing. Then, while Angelina was off doing her errands, he would walk as casually as possible across the street to clip the flower under the driver’s side windshield wiper on Angelina’s truck.
He was too afraid to observe Angelina’s return (the delivery itself made his strong workman’s hands shake with anxiety), but that night, Angelina would turn on the lights in her office to reveal a small yellow vase on her desk – and in the vase, Pedro’s flower!
This went on for a year, and still Pedro would feel a thrill when he spied his flowers on Angelina’s window, still his hands would shake like a teenage vandal’s when he made his deliveries. Eventually, however, even this was not enough to quell Pedro’s longings, and once again he began to consider leaving the farm. This time, he had a concrete offer, a cousin at an apple orchard across the river in Washington who said he could get him a job whenever he wanted.
Pedro awoke one Saturday morning in early March to find the sky over Mount Hood like a perfect oil painting of cerulean blue. The orchards outside his bedroom window had just, in the previous eight hours, achieved the peak of their blossoming, a hazy field of snow-white flowers dripping here and there like the tears of angels.
Pedaling toward Hood River through this paradise, Pedro felt strangely overwhelmed. When he arrived at the café he wrote a poem about a man who camped out in a pear orchard. The man bedded down beneath a bower of blossoming pear branches, and in the morning a crew of workers discovered him dead, having literally asphyxiated himself in a pile of white petals.
At the florist’s shop, Mabel (who had long ago figured out the object of Pedro’s purchases) presented him with a white orchid, the most beautiful flower Pedro had ever seen. She sold it to him at a price that was much lower, he was sure, than its real cost. Still, even with the thought of the lovely orchid that would appear that evening in Angelina’s window, he returned to the café feeling like a condemned man. He composed poem after poem about men killed by the terrorizing forces of beauty: a hunter clawed to death by an eagle with feathers of gold, an Alaskan explorer struck by a bolt of lightning from the heart of the Northern Lights, a teenaged boy so distracted by a passing bonita that he walks into the path of a speeding bus.
Two hours later, Pedro applied a final period to this gorgeous genocide, slapped his notebook shut and trudged from the café, too weighed down to even say goodbye to his pals Louis and Jake, hunched over their daily chess match. At the very moment of dropping down that last dot of ink, in fact, Pedro had resolved never to write a poem again. Once he escaped to the apple-fields of the north, he knew that the magic of words would conjure up Angelina’s face at every stanza. His determination was so concrete, in fact, that he left behind a volume of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca atop his usual windowside table.
So it was that, with heart and feet turning steadily to iron, Pedro Poncilla rounded the back corner of the café to find a most unusual sight: his old bicycle, angled against the tree, covered from handlebar to rear fender in pear blossoms, whole branches of them, fixed to its metallic limbs with loops of white ribbon. It looked like a kind of two-wheeled float, dressed up for an Easter parade.
Frozen in place in the alleyway, Pedro could feel the beauty that had always been outside of him, now asphyxiating him, filling his lungs and mouth and muscles, inflating him to a man three times his former size. He knelt next to his bicycle, running his hands over its new tissue-paper skin, then untied the branches one by one, wrapping them in a sheet of butcher paper he got from Mabel. He tied the bundle to the center rod of his bicycle, and carefully placed the ribbons in his pocket. Then he rode home like a demon, questions flashing through his mind like the sparrows whipping past him in the wind.
He pulled into the farm to find father and daughter Ochoas standing next to the red truck, beaming in amusement and admiration, Angelina holding the white orchid in her hands. As Pedro pulled to a stop in the loose gravel of the drive, he could feel the tug of one last anxiety: how in the world could he explain himself? His concerns were shattered by the booming laughter of his boss.
“Señor Poncilla!” he shouted. “I see you have brought us more pear blossoms. I am so relieved; I was afraid we were going to run out!”
Esteban Ochoas stepped to Pedro’s side and gave him a warm handshake. “I was wondering, Señor Poncilla, if you would do us the honor of having dinner tonight with my daughter and myself. I would like to discuss your apparently great interest in floral horticulture.”
Pedro smiled shyly, afraid to look at Angelina’s face lest it cause his heart to burst. He caught his breath and said, “Yes, by all means, Señor Ochoas. I… I would be honored. Yes.”
Photo by MJV