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Johnny Martinez

by Roberta Tennant

      Johnny Martinez lived in a house in an orange grove near Loomis, California. The house stood only a few short miles from the great Folsom Lake that was formed many years ago, when the engineers found a wild river and decided to stop its wildness with a dam. The old woman who owned the farm had allowed him to build the house out of odds and ends of lumber that he found on the place. It had one room, and no single piece of wood in the house matched any other piece. Still, it was warm in summer, and in winter, Johnny Martinez would say, one expects to be cold.

      Johnny Martinez had a large television antenna on the roof of his house, but it is unlikely that he actually had a television set, for the house had no electricity. The antenna served a purpose, however; an enormous American flag hung from it. The flag was stained and mildewed and fringed with tatters. Tom Benson of the veterans of Foreign Wars said it was a crime to display a flag like that. Ellen Bates, the librarian, thought it was wonderful that so poor a man should be so patriotic. She often thought of getting up a fund to buy him a new flag, but she was somewhat shy and felt timid about public attention.

      Each day, Johnny Martinez worked on the old woman's farm, although it is not known exactly what he did. Years before he had come to the farm, the orange grove had been abandoned, left to grow wild and uncultivated, until almost all of the trees were dying or dead from insects and lack of water. Johnny Martinez had managed to save three large trees near his shack. He sprayed and irrigated these trees when he remembered, and the crop was not dependable. Still, there was more fruit than he could use, and the ground under the trees was often fragrant with rotting and dried oranges. Johnny Martinez would pick and eat some of the fruit, but there was always too much.

      At other times, he dug carefully and steadily on the land, working toward some secret purpose. When he had drunk a little beer, he would say to people he met, "When I work with the soil, I get thoughts right out of the ground! Thoughts that are dark and cool, and thoughts that are hot and dusty. The ground gives me these thoughts, because the ground and I both know that is where I am going to!"

      Some people remembered these words and even wrote them down. Ellen Bates thought they were poetic and put them in the margin of a book. Tom Benson was displeased with Johnny Martinez' presumption. "How can he be so sure that the ground is where he's going?" he complained to his wife. "He might drown in the lake, or someone might set fire to that shack some night." Tom Benson's wife said nothing, because she rarely listened to him.

      At that time, Johnny Martinez was around forty-five. His black hair had thinned slightly, and traces of gray showed here and there. His skin had been darkened by the sun, and his hands had been scarred and calloused by years of work in the fields of California. Johnny Martinez's face was lined and creviced with a lifetime of quiet thought. It was a face not easily forgotten by those who saw him. To Tom Benson, it was the face of a man to be deeply distrusted, perhaps even hated. But Ellen Bates thought of the great lost civilizations of the Aztecs whenever she looked at Johnny Martinez, and although she would never have dared to mention it to anyone, she often liked to imagine how he would look in the robes of the Indian emperors whose images were entombed in the Central American history books at the Library.

      A quarter of a century before, when he was twenty and the girl eighteen, Johnny Martinez had been married in the church. His wife lived one month. "When she died," he would say sadly, "the Eye of the World closed for me!" (Ellen Bates wrote that in the margin of the Rubaiyat.) From that marriage he had brought away a faded picture to which he would point proudly, saying to strangers, "There is your friend Johnny Martinez and his beautiful wife! There is Johnny Martinez when he is twenty!"

      When he was thirty, he married again. The second marriage lasted longer, and the woman gave Johnny Martinez three children: two girls, each with their mother's quick smile, and a boy whose face was a small mirror of his father's. But at last that wife also went away, left him for a young man with a pick-up truck. The young man raised, bought, and sold horses to people who wanted them for riding and to others, who slaughtered them for food. Johnny Martinez used to see his wife and the young man riding along the side of the highway on a white mare and a chestnut gelding.

      One year they moved to Montana and took Johnny Martinez' children with them. He did not see his children again, but he carried one letter from his son. The letter was stained and ragged, worn through from the pressure of his hip against his pants pocket. Although the letter was illegible, Johnny Martinez could recite it from memory. It was a simple letter from a child, brief, and unimportant in content.       In return for that one letter, Johnny Martinez wrote dozens of letters which he called "My Histories", sending them not only to his children, but to the Governor, the United States Congress, even the President. At first, these letters were answered, but later, as the secretaries who opened the mail became familiar with his name, the answers became infrequent and sometimes stopped altogether, until after an election brought in a new staff of secretaries.

      The Histories were all written in question and answer form, and they were all about Johnny Martinez, his past, present, and future. One of them read: "Question: What did Johnny Martinez do during the Second World War? Answer: He won the Congressional Medal of Honor." When Tom Benson heard about that one, he wanted to put Johnny Martinez in jail for perjury, until someone pointed out to him that there was no law against lying about yourself unless you were under oath at the time. After that, Tom Benson told everyone that he personally knew Johnny Martinez never got the Medal of Honor.

      Ellen Bates always reminded people that Johnny Martinez did get the Victory Medal and the Purple Heart, and that Tom Benson might be mistaken about the Medal of Honor.

      Johnny Martinez used to say that when he was in the Army and deep inside the war, he thought, "What a fool I am!" and decided to run away from the fighting. But the enemy was attacking, and he stayed, because he was not afraid, only tired of the war, and Johnny Martinez did not want anyone to think that he was a coward. Four days later he regained consciousness and found himself lying under the bodies of three other men who had been his friends. They had all been dismembered and killed by the shells. Johnny Martinez used to talk about how he had dug in the hard French soil to make their graves, but not many people wanted to hear about it.

      Johnny Martinez also remembered children in France and Italy, crying and starving, and was glad that his own children were so well provided for. Sometimes when he had been reading his son's letter, and wishing that he could see his children again, he would think of mailing them a crate of oranges, but the years seemed to go by so rapidly, and his work with the soil and the Histories took up all his time.

      One year, the old woman's nephew and his wife, who lived in San Francisco, came up to the Sacramento area to visit her. They looked around the land and met Johnny Martinez at his house. Johnny Martinez confided to them almost immediately that he planned to become a lawyer. Then, possibly embarrassed because he had been digging and was very dusty, he told the old woman's relatives, "I am going to take a shower, and then you will see what your lawyer friend looks like! A real jurist!" There was no shower in his house, but Johnny Martinez must have washed quickly in a basin, and he came out again in a wrinkled white shirt, the same dusty trousers, and a straw hat. "Now how does your friend Johnny Martinez look?" he asked confidently. "Like a real lawyer?" The nephew and his wife were puzzled, but they smiled and nodded politely, and Johnny Martinez seemed pleased.

      During their visit, the old woman complained to her relatives about Johnny Martinez. "He seems like a hard worker," said her nephew. That wasn't the point, the old woman said. Yes, he did the few chores that were left to be done on the farm, but he spent too much of his time digging with no purpose. And he was always writing, scribbling on old envelopes or any scrap of paper he could find. "You'd better do something," said the old woman. "Three times this month he got so drunk at the Log Store that Bill had to take him home in the back of the truck. He's going to go out on that lake drunk someday and drown, or else burn down that house!" The relatives listened. After their visit was over they drove back down to San Francisco without doing anything about Johnny Martinez.

      A few months later, Johnny Martinez disappeared. One of the Histories turned up in the hands of Ellen Bates, who became hysterical when she read this passage: "Question: Whatever became of Johnny Martinez? Answer: He never became a lawyer, and one day he went out on the lake, drunk, and he drowned." Ellen Bates wrote a memorial poem that was printed in the local paper. However, Tom Benson still maintains that Johnny Martinez went up to Montana to see his children, took a shot at his wife, and was sent to prison, and he says he has the newspaper clipping to prove it. Tom Benson won't show the clipping to anyone but his wife, and in ten years she never has taken the time to read it.

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