His skin was burnt umber, but his features were not African. Jose Ramos had the right words for ladies and big callused hands for picking apples. An angry eagle tattooed on his right bicep seemed to spread its wings as he lifted one more heavy crate up on the flatbed truck. The box of red and yellow orbs plentiful in Hendersonville, North Carolina held the promise of a crisp treat to satisfy the crisp fall morning in October 1979. To see Jose on a corner in a seedier part of town, he may be mistaken for a gang member. Here in the sun drenched orchid, he would be labeled a migrant worker here for the season. In truth, Jose liked the nickname J.R. as he was the master of this field. He fancied himself the head of his own land empire the way Larry Hagman strutted about the Dallas soap opera about to premiere its second season. His apple orchard farm was much smaller than the trashy empire on one of the only three TV networks. The size didn’t matter to Jose as his twelve acres produced sixteen varieties of the fruit that gave acclaim to Hendersonville as the most productive stretch of dirt in North Carolina.
How Jose Ramos became a land owner is a story that began back in the sixties.
It was a nice warm June day in 1965 in Hendersonville as Hector Hernandez cruised Main Street in his 1955 Chevy. Hector’s ride was black with hand painted flames and illegal mufflers to give the car a roar. He’d lay rubber half a block and his friends thought he was the man. When he wasn’t driving and cruising for beer, he and his buddies would stand on the street corner and torment the whores. They’d grab their crotch and tease, “La monada, want some of this?”
Young painted prostitutes paraded to look old enough to know better responded by giving the kids the finger. If Hector was in his car he’d pump the gas to make the exhaust pipes sing, and he’d laugh at the response, “When you grow a real pipe or roll of cash, we can talk.”
Hector could have been an earlier version of Jose. He had the dark good looks and shared a very similar background. Mexican. Shitty neighborhood. His family lived in a small worn out frame house perched on a mound of a lot at a corner in one of the worst neighborhoods. Hector and his buddies claimed territory along Seventh Avenue around Robinson where drugs and whores were sold. In his day, mid sixties, the drug sold to the rich white kids was marijuana. Those kids, once called ‘preppies’, cluttered the place during summer vacations. Hector’s group was happy to take their money from that whole baby boom generation of assholes. Hector could care less about the way these foreigners from Miami or Long Island acted out on pot for the first time. The drugs would change over the next decade in young Hector’s life; what the whores did would stay the same, just as the vacationers seeking cheap thrills never change from generation to generation.
That summer of ’65, Hector lost interest in teasing whores and began seeing a girl from school and a nicer part of town. Maria Alvarez had become special. He had just picked her up after school at the West Henderson High and headed south on Haywood Road, “Where are we going?” asked Maria.
“Nice surprise,” he said, “You like sunsets?”
“What’s that book?”
“My senior yearbook. I want you to sign it.”
“I like that name. The Falcon.”
“Yeah, well we do appreciate our football team.”
“I like the bird. Fast animal. Knows how to kill.”
A warm breeze blew in the open window as Haywood merged into Asheville Highway, “Why are we headed downtown?”
“Pick up my cousin Juan and his girlfriend Barbara. You’ll like them. Good kids.”
Once they made the turn west on fifth, Maria guessed the surprise, “You’re headed up to jump off rock.”
“Busted,” said Hector as he wheeled into a dirt parking space next to a small wood frame house; one of those post war shacks not big enough to be a bungalow. Juan and Barbara perched in folding lawn chairs behind the railing on the porch.
“Amigos!” announced Juan as he and his girl hopped in the back carrying a brown bag.
“What you got in that bag?” asked Hector.
“Libations for the ladies,” and he produced a cold six pack.
“How you get that?”
“Friend at the convenience store owed me.”
They headed on fifth up through Laurel Park when the D.J. on the local AM station said, “This new song from the Stones is going to be a hit.”
Hector cranked the volume as the fuzz tone guitar hit the first licks and Mick’s shouting, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
“Story of my life,” Juan said and Barbara slapped his shoulder.
Twists and turns of two lane pavement took over as Fifth Avenue turned into Laurel Park Highway. The road would turn back and forth on itself, “Go slow said Maria. This is one dangerous road.”
“That’s why they got that rock wall on the left.”
“Not a big wall.”
“Big enough to be hard work.”
“Hard for who, Amigo?” said Juan. “The probably used a bunch of Mexicans.”
“Nah. Most likely a bunch of Indians.”
Juan popped another brew and sipped the fizz, “Damn sure no redneck white guys broke a sweat.”
After another turn the pavement ended. Gravel cracked under the tires and the dirt path looked like it would take them to an infinity drop-off from a group of large granite boulders. Hector turned off the car, “Here we are. Let’s check out that sunset everybody talks about.”
Once the car doors thumped shut, Hector let Juan and Barbara walk ahead. His heartbeat was almost in his throat as he reached for Maria’s hand. She accepted and squeezed his palm with a sweet smile and her eye’s sparkled, “Maria Sparkle,” he said.
“Giving me a nickname?”
He thought he’d like to say how he would give her the world; do anything. Maria had a stronger power. Being with her had taken on a new dimension. The test to win her over became the entire world in front if them; much bigger than all the space out there across the rise and fall of the afternoon horizon. Each step toward the edge felt like the last important step in his life.
“Hey, check that out,” he heard Juan say.
“Barbara, let’s take that path down around the base of the rock.”
Juan’s coaxing Barbara came as a relief to Hector as he wanted Maria all to himself. The dirt path ended and the granite edge of jump off rock became a natural step.
Maria stepped out of her Bakers flats so her bare feet could feel the stone warmed by a full day of new summer sun, “Nice,” she said. “It’s like the center of the earth is holding me from flying off into the universe.”
“And that is some universe,” added Hector looking out over the folds of the valley and the soft rounded mountains on the horizon, “Just in time,” said Maria as the sun dipped closer to the edge.
When sunset came, Hector felt some pride that he himself had orchestrated a great moment. A falcon soared above headed for a tree for the night. All was quiet. No breeze, no exhaust pipes, no blaring music. Just silence for a moment.
“Beautiful,” Maria broke the spell.
To Hector, Maria was far more beautiful and said to her, “Maria Alvarez,” he smiled her name. “You have the prettiest eyes. And, your hair …”
She stopped him, “What about my hair?”
“It flows like it is some kind of black cool liquid over your shoulders.”
“Oh, quite the poet.”
Hector wanted to say more, but the fear of telling her how he loved her stopped him.
“Some place up here, huh? She said to break his spell.
“Yeah,” he said. “You believe it?”
“Why they call this jump off rock. The Indian princess.”
She waited staring at Hector for an explanation, and he continued, “She jumped off the rock up here and killed herself.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Her brave had been killed. Couldn’t go on without him. That’s love.”
“If that’s love,” she said. “I want no part of it. At least for now. Right now all I want is to have some fun and leave all the love stuff for old people.”
“But, you say just for now?”
“Maybe some day after college. Could be.”
Hector felt safe since he had kept his feelings to himself.
“You going to college?” she asked.
Hector took a deep breath, “Not much chance a Mexican fruit picker going to college.”
“You may be surprised what you can do Hector Hernandez. You just wait.”
“Hey, we’re out of beer,” said Juan coming up the path where he had taken Barbara off to himself.”
Hector watched the last of the day’s sun illuminate Maria’s face, “We could wait for the moon.”
Juan buts in, “Ain’t no moon this time of month, man. Let’s head down for another six-pack.”
“Your friend still owe you one?”
“Nah, he’s off work now.”
“Ain’t none of us old enough, Juan. You know that.”
“Come on, let’s hit it. I’ll think of something.”
The ride down the mountain seemed quicker than the long crawl up.
“Turn right up ahead,” said Juan.
When Hector turned right on Hebron, it felt more like a u-turn, “Where you taking me?”
“Down on Greenville Highway, there’s a service station that sells beer and no one knows us or how old we are.”
“That’s a hike.”
“So, all we ever do is cruise, cruise, cruise. Ain’t never getting no where.”
“Where is it you so hell fire bent on going anyway, Juan?”
“Take my guitar to Nashville. Become a big star like Elvis.”
“Ain’t no Mexicans make it big at anything,” Hector laughed and glanced in the rear view mirror at the skinny runt of a kid in the back seat. His nose was too big and those squinty eyes said everything Hector knew about Juan. He was the scrappy little big mouth that would start a fight and watch Hector finish it.
“Why you be so down on other people’s dreams for?”
“Just real, man.”
“Hector, if you can not imagine picking yourself up, picking fruit is all you ever do.”
“You too Juan, all I see is apples in your future.”
“You watch smart ass. I am going to be somebody some day,” Juan said it with determination.
His comment got Maria’s attention. She glanced back to see that Juan turned his attention to Barbara. The privacy of the moment let her reach across the front seat to touch Hector. She slid closer to whisper, “Hector, I really do see something big in your future. If I see it, you should too.”
As they drove, the group grew quiet. A few miles of peace and they passed an opening in the forest and off to the right down the hill a wide vista of green stretched out.
“Bet there’s plenty of booze in there,” said Juan.
“You mean the Hendersonville Country Club?”
“Yeah, fat chance us ever getting in there.”
A new sixty five Ford squealed out of Bent Tree Road right in front of Hector causing him to hit the breaks.
“Totalmente mierda!” Hector yelled.
“What?” asked Maria.
Juan answered, “Wholly shit.”
“Hector Hernandez I am shocked at such language,” teased Maria.
Juan said, “Catch that guy.”
Hector sped up and followed the big square tail lights on that new Ford. They raced after the car around corners speeding by the intersections Chariton Avenue and Belmont Drive. Expensive homes flew buy and more intersections until they nearly missed some old woman driving an Oldsmobile at Forest Street. She blew her horn and yelled some kind of old fart obscenity as Hector pushed on after the Ford. This kept up until they turned right on White Street and came to a stoplight at the corner where Main Street changes name to Greenville Highway. The Ford was stopped in the right turn lane at the light and Hector stopped his Chevy to the driver’s left.
Maria said, “Oh no wonder, that’s Bobby. The quarterback at school.”
Bobby saw her look at him and winked when she said, “Hey Bobby.”
“What you doing in that heap?” he laughed.
“Heap, my ass,” said Hector. “At least it’s mine, and I don’t have to ask daddy for the keys.”
Juan from the back seat leans up, “Oh, you that big football Falcon quarterback, huh? Look more like chicken to me.”
“You say what?” from a now smile less Bobby.
“Oh, sorry Amigo,” said Juan. “I meant to say chicken shit.”
Bobby raced his engine, “Put your money where your mouth is wetback”, and hooks a right on red to Greenville Highway. Hector floors it from the wrong lane but is close on Bobby’s rear. They pick up speed down the two lane highway now getting darker with the night coming down. The race goes on past Flat Rock and somewhere around Erkwood Drive, the guy riding shotgun in Bobby’s Ford tosses a beer can out the window to hit Hector’s Chevy in the front grill.
“That’s it!” yelled Hector catching some of Juan’s anger and picking up more speed.
The car sways in each turn, Maria becoming more and more frightened. She did not bargain for this and closed her eyes, “Hector, please give this up.”
“That stuck up white kid needs a beating.”
“Please, Hector, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Please, slow down.”
Hector took his eyes off the road to see what he was doing to the one person he cared for most. He started to ease off the gas, the Ford’s tail lights faded into the dark just as the car passed Robert E. Lee Drive. Hector locked on Maria did not see old man Timmons pull his tractor out on Greenville Highway after the Ford cleared the intersection. Bobby did not see Timmons tractor in his rear view mirror. He just sped away around the next bend in the road to the right and zoomed by Boxwood Loop. His buddy laughed, as they left the old Chevy in their dust.
Timmons tractor was slow. The plow with large discs for carving rows in fields was in tow behind the tractor and had no trailer lights.
This big steel discs reflected light from Hector’s beams.
The sharp edges zoomed toward the car just as Hector dropped his gaze at Maria and returned to the road. Then he felt his chest crush against the steering wheel and heard glass shattering. Hector saw something fly by through the windshield. Juan and Barbara crushed against the back of the front seat.
Everything went black for Hector.
He thought, just for a moment he heard old man Timmons pull on the door and yell something to him.
The next morning when Hector woke up at the hospital, he learned about his broken nose and three fractured ribs from crushing the steering wheel on his 1955 Chevrolet. The pain in his collapsed ribs could not come close to the new deeper ache when he heard the doctor explain that Maria Alvarez had been killed. No one would add to the pain with details how she was thrown through the windshield and landed on old man Timmons plow.
It was six weeks to the day that Hector Hernandez stood in court looking up at a white haired judge. The man looked through his glasses down his nose at a file that told the story of that night, “Mr. Hernandez,” he addressed the teen as an adult. “This is a very serious situation you have.”
The judge made eye contact with Hector as he folded his hands over the file he closed on his desk, “You aware of the pain you have inflicted?”
Hector nodded and sniffled out a ‘yes your honor’ and spoke, “I can not bear what my life will be like without Maria.”
“Well, young man, the great state of North Carolina considers reckless driving a class two misdemeanor. The more pressing issue is the death by vehicle law. My understanding is the young man in the back seat had been drinking, is that correct?
“Yes sir, some beer.”
“I had one earlier that evening.”
“Well, I appreciate your forthcoming as your blood alcohol test did not show intoxication. That would make this a homicide case.”
That word cut deep into Hector releasing a level of fear he had not experienced. The judge continued, “Our state defines felony death by vehicle as unintentionally causing a death while under the influence. Does the seriousness of your situation ring true, young man?”
“Yes, your honor,” the words choked with a quiver. “I know and I deserve to suffer. Maria did not deserve what happened.”
The judge took in the boy’s words, “Life, Hector,” he said, “is not something deserved one way or another. We all make our own lives and have to live with the consequences of our own decisions. You made a bad decision.”
The man sat back to take a breath, “Now, I have to make a decision.”
He let the quiet sink in. Time to give thought some deep roots to grow.
“Hector, you are a young man and not a bad person. You made choices that ended badly. What should I do? Send you away and let a bad mistake make a bad old man with nothing more than regret to live with. Does that sound right?”
Anyone witnessing the judge would feel a certain fear that the man was about to let the death of a young girl go unpunished. A justice system void of any justice could not be a good thing. Then, the judge made an attempt at leveling the field, “Hector Hernandez, you will be sent to our juvenile justice system facility in Asheville where you must complete a course of corrective study. You will also be confined there until you have successfully completed your high school education. Once released, your fines will be paid in community service. Also, you will no longer have the privilege of a driver’s license until you are of adult age.”
The sixties passed and the seventies opened up a new world for Hector. That sentence of community service set the course for Hector’s life, as he worked for a youth center in Hendersonville with the mission to train and inspire young people. This was the place for Hector to meet a young smart ass kid, Jose Ramos.
Jose was trying to be the man on the street in the eyes of his friends. He had that in common with a younger Hector. He was too young to push drugs to the vacationing yuppies, and small enough to be the butt of teasing by the whores. Jose was a skinny kid and kind of short, but with a wide smile that split his cheeks into long dimples that girls thought was cute. He compensated his size with more bullshit than seemed possible. But, the charisma gave him some capital with the guys and a few of the school girls. One of these girls was a pretty freshman at the school where the Falcons ruled. She was sweet and volunteered at Hector’s youth center.
“Jose,” she’d say, “why do you hang with those kids? You know they’re up to no good.”
“You mean my posse?”
“Bunch of posers maybe, posse, that’s a stretch.”
“Come on girl, you talking about my team,” and Jose would laugh and push at her shoulder. “Why don’t you and me take in a movie?”
“You know my Daddy doesn’t think I’m old enough to date.”
“What? You’re a freshman in high school.”
“And, you are just fresh,” she’d say and turn away.
Jose liked the girl and thought of her in a serious manner, not at all the way he’d think about the whores in cut offs and no bra tank tops. Teenage boys have to deal with these conflicts, so Jose took it out in big talk with the boys.
Then, the afternoon came that opened a door for Jose. He stopped in the drug store on Main with the lunch counter and soda fountain. The place could be a time machine from the fifties. There in front of him sat the pretty girl with a milk shake that looked as tall as she was on the counter. He took the stool next to her, “You still think your Daddy won’t let me drop by?”
“Jose, no use trying.”
“You got something against Mexicans like we can’t ever do anything?”
“That has nothing to do with it. You should know better.”
“Just experience is all.”
“Don’t put yourself down. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
“Except get you out on a date.”
She smiled and took a sip from the straw in the shake.
Jose watched and smiled, “What brings you downtown anyway?”
“I help out at the youth center and this weekend we are having a bake sale to raise money for our programs.”
“That center raise a lot of money?”
“Cash keeps it afloat. Like anything else.”
“How’s that work, people donate money same as going to church?”
“Kind of,” she said. “Hector keeps it in a safe and takes it to the bank every Monday.”
“Good for him.”
That tidbit of information played well with Jose and his buddies, “We should break in one guy offered to Jose.”
“You crazy? I ain’t planning on getting shot or jail.”
“Who would shoot you late Sunday night?”
“The man goes to the bank Monday morning. Think of all that cash from the week before just sitting there with our names on it.”
Jose pondered, “How would you do it?”
“Easy, lift your skinny ass up through the back window. You’re the only one small enough.”
“What about the safe?”
“Ain’t no safe. I’ve been in there. Only thing in the office is a file cabinet. Maybe the man has a box for cash, but no safe.”
“Why would she say safe?’
“Girls don’t know shit. She probably thinks a file cabinet is a safe.”
“Why were you in there?”
“Girl I like said to volunteer.”
Jose laughed, “Got you wrapped?”
“No way. Don’t matter. I can go back in Saturday, sweep the floor take out the trash, some shit. Then I’ll unlock the window in the back so we can get you in.”
Sunday afternoon dragged by and the sun just hung there refusing to go down. Then finally gave up. Soon it was dark and really quiet since no one hustled about on Sunday nights. Silence was broken when Jose slid the metal trash can across the cobblestones of the alley to get a boost up to the back window. He grunted himself up feeling the bricks of the old building scrape his knees through his jeans. The white paint on the window sill had aged into a powder that stuck to Jose’s palms as he pushed the unlocked window up. One leg in and he pulled himself inside, “I’m in,” he whispered to the other boy outside. “Hand me the flashlight.”
Jose inched through the center back to Hector’s office.
Just past the door he aimed the flashlight around the room. Behind the metal desk was one lone brown file cabinet with four drawers, “Damn, unreal,” he said.
The top drawer was locked with a combination lock. The thing was a safe after all.
Jose started to back up when the ceiling light hummed its fluorescent glow, and he heard, “Stop right there.”
Jose turned around to stand face to face with Hector.
“What are you doing here?”
“It’s my office,” said Hector. “How old are you?”
“Don’t be such a smart ass. Sit down. Now, how old are you?”
“A real man at fifteen. That’s a bunch of years ahead of you to spend in jail.”
“I ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“You broke in.”
“Ain’t stole nothing,” said Jose.
“Bet that combination lock slowed you down some.”
Jose sat quiet and Hector pulled up a chair, “What you think? Should I call the police?”
“Do what you got to do.”
“What I have to do is make a decision. Now on one hand, you have done a bad thing. I can call the cops. Put you away until you become a real bad person. Or, you can have a say in the matter.”
“You ever hear of Timmons Orchard? Big apple orchard over east of town?”
“Lot of farms over there.”
“Well, old man Timmons is what you call a benefactor. He helps the center.”
“Gives you money. Pay off the Mexican, huh?”
“Better than that. He let’s me decide about some kids here that can go to work on his farm. Learn something.”
Jose said, “I get it. You get kids and he gets slave labor.”
“No, he pays young men that I recommend. The really bad kids that sling dope around and cut each other. They get sent away. Good riddance. Kids like you too stupid to be bad, but can be saved and go to work. The ones that do good end up being somebody. Does that sound like something you can relate to?”
Jose sat quiet, “You think I’m stupid?”
“I think you are young enough to make stupid mistakes. But, doing something stupid does not make you stupid for the long run. If you try, you might be something.”
“I can be something?”
“Not that many years ago I was the same. Then a man gave me a choice when I did something bad, he said he did not want to make me a bad person by going to jail. I think you deserve the same chance.”
Jose took him up on the offer. Old man Timmons taught Jose the pride that comes from hard work. Taught him to show up on time. Do a full day. Get paid. Along the way, he taught Jose about apple varieties, the magic of pruning and grafting. Then, he did one better. He schooled Jose on saving and always learning something new. Helped him get through school. After some years, Jose became a favorite of old man Timmons. Up to the day he died. The man had no family so he willed twelve acres to Jose, along with other parcels to various young people he had helped from the youth center. So, Jose Ramos became the owner of J.R. Farms and his sixteen varieties of Hendersonville apples are some of the best.
The unofficial end of the summer of 1979 was coming up Labor Day weekend. There’s a much bigger event on the calendar for Jose. The North Carolina Apple Festival right at home in Hendersonville. A big weekend for sure for apple growers to show off their crops and have locals and tourists pig out of all kinds of fried and apple treats to sample. Jose drove a fully loaded flatbed truck toward downtown to the apple festival on Main. He turned the radio on to listen to the local radio station live remote broadcasting the event to hear the warm up for the opening of the festival. The D.J. on the scene talked about the tents going up, tons of apples being unloaded, and a run down of some of the tasty treats promised, “Don’t forget those apple beignets. Get ready to crank up the volume for the latest number one hit, can you stutter, My My My My Sharona? Here’s the Knack.”
Jose turned the volume down and pressed on southwest on Asheville Highway. He passed the mix of old houses and crappy looking small commercial buildings. The Knack kept yelling until he approached and passed the triangular intersection at Haywood Road. The stoplight stopped him. The light changed. The DJ changed, “From number one we’re going way back for an oldie but goodie. Fifteen years ago seems like yesterday when you hear the Stones …”
The fuzz tone guitar pounded and Mick shouted, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
Jose drove on. Church Street and the merge with Main came up. Jose took Church to wind around to the lot for vendors at the festival. He made it through the stoplight at Fifth but Fourth caught him. The big red brick building with antique arched windows reminded him of who he was; and who he has become. He watched as Hector Hernandez came out to change the letters on the sign. Jose beeped the truck horn and Hector waved back. He stood there a moment’ then gave Jose a thumbs up. Hector picked up the tackle box of letters used to announce some weekly event at the center. He eyed the sign checking it and looked up at the permanent marquee on top of the sign with the name, Maria Alvarez Youth Center.