When he stood perfectly still and kept his shadow away from the rock pool, he could see the big fish hiding in the dark crevice formed by the large rock overhanging the water. Ruben Alcola came here every year after the snows melted to explore the little pools where unlucky fish heading uphill to spawn sometimes got caught as the stream dried up. This fish was the biggest he’d ever seen. He vowed to keep it his secret.
Ruben lived in a small yellow cabin with his father and mother. There were two other cabins just like it along the track built by the Southern Pacific for their workers. Felipe Santiago, an old man, lived alone in the cabin furthest away. He had pictures of naked women all around the roof above his bed. He said he was lonely and the pictures kept him company. The Ramira family lived in the other house, the one in the middle. Teo Ramira was Ruben’s best friend. Sometimes they fought and became enemies for awhile, but never for long. As for Teo’s sister, Esperanza, Ruben thought he was in love with her, but he was too embarrassed to tell anyone about his feelings. How could he know for sure? How could anyone know what love is? It was a mystery to him and he felt foolish thinking about it. He got ticklish when she walked by and melted into a sticky gooey mess when she smiled at him. He felt like an idiot whenever she was around.
Ruben’s father, Teo’s father, and old man Santiago worked along the track for the Southern Pacific. They kept the track clear up and down the line and repaired the rusted out spikes and worn out ties. They kept the snow sheds in good order and they did whatever other maintenance was required. They didn’t need a supervisor. They worked hard and long as a matter of pride. A few years back they helped in the rescue of two hundred passengers when the fancy City of San Francisco steamliner got caught in the blizzard at Donner Pass. The reporter put old man Santiago’s picture in the paper.
The span of track they kept in good order wound through the trees on the side of the mountain. It was at the halfway point in the route between Reno and Sacramento, cities Ruben had never seen. He had only vague mental pictures of them from the occasional television programs he watched when he accompanied his mother to the hotel. The hotel was above the tracks at a natural resting point where the highway rose steeply up a hill toward the west on the way to Sacramento. Ruben’s mother, Teo’s mother, and Esperanza worked at the hotel. Some of the staff lived in little houses close to the hotel while others came from the small towns nearby. Bear Valley was on the north side of the mountain. Ruben had seen the view of Lake Spalding from the dining room and also from the bar below which had been carved out of the mountainside and suspended out over the valley on large pine beams.
Ruben went to the hotel with his mother when the boss’s son, Rory, was visiting and wanted company. The two became friends in spite of their different life styles. Together they explored the area around the hotel. They hid in the giant granite rocks under the tall pine trees. They pulled the tails off the lizards they found in the woodpile. They shot birds with slingshots. They stuffed secret messages in the rock sidewalls of the walkways that led into the hotel. Sometimes they spied on the hotel guests through the windows. Once, Ruben saw Esperanza making up the beds and cleaning up the rooms. She didn’t know he was looking. He drooped like a leaf with a stem that went all mushy.
“What do you act so funny around Esperanza? Is she your girl?” asked Rory when they were out back behind the kitchen eating fresh baked rolls glazed with honey butter that they’d stolen from the cooling racks.
Ruben’s English was not so good. He just smiled at Rory and shook his head.
Rory smiled back. It was a peculiar smile, the smile of someone who wants you to trust them when you know they can’t be trusted.
The big fish vaulted out of the crevice and caught a mosquito lounging on the flat surface of the pool, then dove back down all in an instant. A circular transverse wave rippled out from where the mosquito had been. It was getting hotter every day. Ruben knew the big fish couldn’t last much longer. It would die and float to the top when the oxygen and the food ran out. It made him sad.
The Alcolas and the Ramiras had large gardens behind their houses. Old Man Santiago didn’t bother. The Ramiras also had two pigs and a cow but Ruben’s family had no animals. “They stink,” said his mother. “They are too much trouble,” said his father.
Sometimes Esperanza slopped the pigs and fed the cow and Ruben went with her to help. When it was Teo’s turn, Ruben also went but he liked going with Esperanza better.
“We should go fishing. Now is the time they’ll be there.” Teo was hurrying with the slop bucket to the pigs. Ruben was walking beside him trying to keep up.
“I’m not going to fish this year,” said Ruben.
“Suit yourself,” said Teo. “I’m going to that old rock hole where we had such good luck last year. I’ll bet there’s a big one waiting for me.”
“I’ve been there already. Nothing.” Ruben knew that lying was wrong but somehow he couldn’t help telling a lie.
“Maybe your eyes have been blinded,” laughed Teo.
“What do you mean?” Ruben watched Teo shake out the contents of the slop bucket over the fence. The two black and white pigs scrambled to beat each other to the scraps of food.
“I’ve seen you looking at my sister. You think you’re in love. That’s silly. You’ll have better luck with the pictures around Santiago’s roof.”
Ruben bit his tongue. How did Teo know?
“My eyes are just fine, Teo. There aren’t any fish this year. Go ahead if you want to waste your time, but you’ll see I’m right.”
Ruben wanted to hit Teo, to knock the snooty smile off his face. He thought of Esperanza. His heart began to beat faster. Was it really love? What could Teo know about that? What did anyone know about that?”
“Maybe I’ll go. Maybe I won’t. Say, why do you hang out with that Rory at the hotel? He’s a rich kid. He doesn’t care about you, about us. He just using you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s sweet on Esperanza. Can’t you see? He asked me to help him get together with her. I told him to go back home to his mother.”
“Who cares?” said Ruben. “He’s nice to me. If he’s sweet on Esperanza, that’s his own business.”
Ruben tried to look unconcerned but he was fuming inside. So that’s how it was? He thought Rory was his friend. He should have known.
Ruben walked back home after leaving Teo. As soon as he was out of sight, he ran up the hill to the rock pool. He couldn’t see the big fish but he knew it was there. Two smaller fish were sitting quietly on the bottom. The sun was going down. He and Teo had caught many fish over the years—some with their hands, some with nets, some with a line and a hook. They had even speared a few with sharp sticks. It was no longer fun for Ruben. The fish were trapped in these small pools. They didn’t have a chance. They would die anyway, though. So, what did it matter?
That night, before his father came home, Ruben asked his mother: “How did you know when you were in love with father?”
His mother looked curiously at him. “Do you have something to tell me Ruben? Have you met a girl?”
“No mother. I just want to know about love. How you know when it happens.”
“Well, there are no bells that ring and there is no hammer to your head. I think I began to love your father when I first met him and then from his actions I saw that he loved me and one thing led to another and it just happened.”
“What just happened?” asked Ruben with a quizzical look on his face.
“Well, I fell in love.”
Ruben was confused. Was love like a hole in the ground that you fell into? It wasn’t an answer but he knew it was useless to go on. Maybe there wasn’t an answer. He thought he was like the big fish, trapped in a rock pool, and worried about what would happen to him.
There was a school halfway up the hill to the highway from Ruben’s house. It was a one-room schoolhouse for the children who lived close by. There were never more than a dozen students at any time. They changed over the months as the hotel staff came and went. Today was the day before Easter break. Everyone was excited about the candy and the Easter egg hunt, even the older students like Ruben and Teo, but they tried not to show it.
Ruben was surprised when Rory drove up in a fancy car with his father. They had Easter baskets for all the kids with sandwiches and sweets and little presents wrapped in boxes decorated with pastel colored paper and shiny metallic colored bows. Rory passed them out to everyone. Ruben got the first basket.
“Here you go, friend. I hope you like it.”
Ruben was embarrassed because he had nothing to give in return. He watched as Rory went around the class. The last one to get a basket was Esperanza and it was the prettiest basket of all. She smiled and thanked Rory and then lowered her eyes so that only her large black eyelashes showed. Ruben shivered and then he got very hot.
Teo winked at Ruben. “You see what I mean?”
“What does it matter? Look at this. He gave me a pocket knife,” said Ruben as he unwrapped his present. He tried to look happy, but he wasn’t happy on the inside.
Rory walked over to Ruben and Teo. “Hey guys, want to go to the movies at Colfax tonight? My dad says he’ll take us. It’ll be our treat.”
Ruben and Teo seldom got a chance to go to the movies.
“Count me in,” said Teo.
“I guess so,” said Ruben.
“Great,” said Rory. “Hey! Teo. Tell your sister to come too. We’ll pick you up around five.”
Rory’s dad took him back to the hotel. Ruben and Teo and Esperanza walked home together.
“Guess what Esperanza? Rory wants to take us all to the movies tonight. You too.” Ruben looked closely at Esperanza while Teo spoke with her.
Esperanza hesitated. “We’ll have to ask mother,” she said. Ruben thought she was pretending to be uninterested, but he could tell by the way she looked that she really wanted to go.
After leaving Teo and Esperanza at the door to their house, Ruben ran into old Santiago heading back out to the tracks after lunch.
“Hola, Senor Santiago.”
“Hola, Ruben. How are you today? No school now for a week, huh? You must be happy. Now you can sleep late and go fishing all day at the rock pools. Maybe you can find me a big one and we can have a barbacoa.”
Ruben thought what it would feel like to bring the big fish to a family barbacoa. He wondered what Esperanza would think of him. He wondered if she would put her arms around him and give him a big kiss.
“I’m well, thank you. Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask, boy, but I have few answers.”
Santiago’s mustache was yellow from the cigarettes he smoked. He had a few teeth missing, but he stood up straight as a telephone pole. The gleam in his eyes splashed happiness everywhere he looked.
“Have you ever been in love?”
Santiago sat down on a pile of logs alongside the track. It was a serious question. He had to think about it before he answered.
“Yes. I was in love one time. It was a long time ago but I remember.”
“How did you know it was love?” Ruben fidgeted a bit as he stood looking down at Santiago. There was a little wind. The smell of the pine trees and the fragrance of the mountain flowers mingled strangely with the strong smell of creosote coming from the railroad ties.
“At first it was just an attraction, you know, that special feeling that a man has for any beautiful woman. But the attraction grew into something deeper. The attraction grew into affection and then into respect. Over time I came to recognize and to appreciate and especially to listen to the inside of another human being in a way that I’d never done before.”
Ruben listened carefully. “And that was love?”
“Yes, I think it was.”
“And where is she now, the one you loved?”
“Oh! She didn’t love me. That was the part I hadn’t counted on.” Santiago laughed awkwardly.
“Aren’t you sad?”
“Sad? Oh no, Ruben. I loved. That is the thing. I had real love. I still feel it. I loved her enough to let her go.”
Santiago looked away into the trees. He stood up. He seemed to be glowing with happiness. It seemed odd to Ruben that dredging up this ancient memory of loss could actually make Santiago happy. How could he be happy without the one he loved?
“I must go back to work Ruben. You’ll find love some day. Don’t worry, you’ll know when it happens. There will be no doubt. I’m sure of that.” Santiago walked east along the tracks carrying his tools in a leather pack around his waist.
At five o’clock the car arrived. Esperanza sat in the front next to Rory’s father while the three boys sat in the back. Ruben was familiar with the drive to Colfax. He had visited the high school there a few times with his parents. He would be attending next year. He’d already met one of the teachers. She tested him with questions and told his parents he’d have to take a special class to improve on his English.
The three boys played rock-paper-scissors in the back seat but Ruben wasn’t paying attention. He kept sneaking looks at Esperanza’s neck. Rory’s father was talking about the new highway. They were going to widen the road all the way from Sacramento to Reno. The State was going to force him to sell the hotel. To make room for the highway they would have to tear it down.
“What will happen to all the jobs?” asked Teo with a frightened look in his eyes.
“I’m afraid they’ll all be gone,” said Rory’s father.
Ruben noticed the grim look in the rearview mirror. Ruben and Teo and Esperanza knew that without the hotel their families would have to move. There was not enough money to raise a family with only the fathers working. A single man like Santiago might make it, but not them.
The mood became quiet and sullen after they heard the news about the hotel. The movie, The Time Machine, scared and disturbed Ruben. Although the others seemed to like it, he found it depressing. At one point he noticed that Rory was holding hands with Esperanza. He went out into the lobby to wait for the movie to end.
Ruben pretended to be asleep on the ride home. He heard Teo ask Rory to go fishing with him on Sunday. Teo told Rory that he knew where they could surely find a big fish. Esperanza was quiet. She was asleep in the front.
The next morning Ruben got up early and sneaked out. He knew what he had to do. He took a large pail and a net from the back of the house. The sun was not quite up and everyone was still asleep. There were no lights on at Santiago’s or at the Ramira’s. Ruben walked down the tracks to the trail that led up through the forest to the rock pools. He approached the big pool very quietly and sat out of view waiting for the sun to rise overhead.
As he sat alone, he thought about what Santiago told him about love. “I loved her enough to let her go,” was what he had said. At first Ruben had been mystified by those words but now he knew exactly what they meant. At just the right moment he scooped up the big fish with the net and plunged it into the pail filled with water. He carried it all the way down to the river below and he let the fish go. The reflection of the sun on the scales of the fish’s skin blinded him until it disappeared.