Fall 2015, Volume 19

Fiction by Casandra Hernández Ríos


Felipe had grown to love the fields in the morning, the dew and the scent.  The fields were a green body, large and vast, that spread past the horizon and seemed to pour into the Pacific.  Felipe knew they could swallow him.  On the surface, the strawberry fields were placid, like the moment before a storm.  He had lost his wife a few years ago, but not to the fields.  Her reasons were her own.  But it had been these strawberry fields that had brought the two of them to Santa María.

He stood outside a white bungalow waiting for Petro to come of out of the office.  Inside was the foreman, and several other workers, closing out their deals.  It was the last day of the picking season, late September.  That workday would be short.  Many workers, such as his friend Petro, had jumped at the opportunity to leave early.  The pay was decent, but they hadn't seen their families since July.  Felipe had asked to stay. He was trying to delay his return home.

He liked working in the open fields.  He was treated well.  And Felipe had become good friends with one of the bosses, the youngest of the brothers, which guaranteed him work in Santa María every year.  But there was something else that drew Felipe to the fields.  They made him feel like part of something greater, the only way he could have explained it.  And he knew that one way or the other, he would find a way to return.

He had wanted to know if his friend shared the same belief about being a part of something greater.

“You're delirious.  Drink some water, güero,” Petro said, shaking his head at Felipe.  “There's nothing greater than dollars into pesos.  Even with a solid construction job in Michoacán, I couldn't support my family.”

Felipe nodded.  Petro was right, and he was grateful that his friend kept him tethered to reality.

Even after a long, hot day of moving at the same pace, bent at the waist for hours, picking, Felipe could still find comfort in the fields.  He'd look at his hardened palms and tender fingers and feel proud to have them, to be able.  At the end of each day, when he looked at the strawberry-filled crates, he knew his worth was palpable.  He didn't need anyone to tell him that he was hard-working or that he was doing a good job because he knew it.

But he couldn't take the same credit for Alejandra, his daughter.  She had been raised by Felipe's mother and sister.  He had had no influence, other than making her sad whenever he was near her.  She was beginning to ask questions, questions he did not want to answer, so he stayed away as much as he could.  But winter was upon him and it was time to go south.  Dread had been cultivating inside of him for weeks as that time neared.

He looked at his wristwatch.  It was 5 a.m.  It would be 8 a.m. in México.  His daughter Alejandra would be getting ready for school, her grandmother ironing her school uniform.  He thought about Alejandra often, especially while picking strawberries, but he didn't like to talk about her with Petro.  Every time he picked a strawberry, he wondered if it would reach her.  He imagined Alejandra holding the same strawberry between her fingers, pulling the end of the stem firmly to detach the berry from its cap, before eating it.  In this way, Felipe fed her. But she wouldn't know it.  He didn't talk to her about his time in the North.

Felipe pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his left pocket and lit one, inhaling and then exhaling the smoke, feeling as it coursed in and then out of him.  He didn't smoke in México, he couldn't.  His sister Rocío would be disappointed.  And Alejandra would too, but only because of Rocío's influence.  Often times, Felipe wondered what he had done to be esteemed like that by the both of them.  He was just a man.  When he imagined himself falling before their eyes it was too much for him to handle.  He didn't want to make Alejandra sad.

“Todo listo,” Petro said, startling Felipe.  “Dreaming, again?” he said, as he tossed Felipe a blue baseball cap.  “I won't be needing that anymore.”

Felipe let the cigarette fall from his hand.  The cap looked new.  He put it on and stepped on the cigarette to put out its tail of smoke.

“I was just thinking,” Felipe said and pointed with his chin at the field ahead.

“Ay, güero.  Those fields will still be there next year, unchanged.  Go home.  Your daughter, how old is she?”

“She's thirteen.”

“See.  You can't turn time back,” said Petro.

“I know,” said Felipe.  “Have a safe trip home.”

“Thanks.  You too.  See you, güero.  If you're ever in town, you know where to find me,” said Petro.

Felipe watched his friend for a few minutes as he walked toward the highway.  It saddened Felipe to watch him go, but he knew he would see him soon.  His friend was three years younger than him, the same age as his sister Rocío, but Felipe didn't mind that Petro acted like he was the older of the two.

He made his way toward the edge of the strawberry fields, where workers were gathering.  Some were lined next to a white truck, where a man was distributing crates where they were to place the picked strawberries.  Others were making their way slowly into the field.  Felipe zipped up his jacket, made sure his water bottles were secured in the pockets of his cargo pants, and took his place at the end of the line near the truck.


It was raining the night he returned home. The flight to México City from Tijuana was short, but Felipe had wanted to arrive late in the night.  He needed time to settle in and to think.  He didn't need anyone to greet him or make him food or ask him questions.

He had stopped at Carmen's front door on the way to the apartment, thought of knocking and asking to spend the night, but he hadn't called or written her since he had left.  He picked up his duffel bag and walked home instead, hoping that Carmen wouldn't hear his footsteps.

He had met Carmen outside the airport earlier that year.  They had seen each other often around the neighborhood, but had never spoken.  When he saw her standing on the curb that day, trying to keep herself and a large suitcase from the rain with a small umbrella, Felipe couldn't help but laugh.  Carmen noticed him and smiled.  She didn't seem upset.

“You should help me with this thing instead of laughing at me,” she said.

“I'm sorry.  That was rude,” Felipe said, walking over to her.

“I know you,” Carmen said.  “You live in the gray apartment building next to my house.”

“Yeah, that's where I live,” he said, readjusting the duffel bag hanging from his shoulder.

“Are you going home?” Carmen said.

Felipe didn't know how to reply.

“Sorry, I mean, if you'd like to share the cab fare,” she said.

“Sure,” Felipe said.  He was glad for her forwardness.  He wouldn't have known what to else to say.

The cab ride wasn't awkward, as Felipe had expected.  Carmen spoke with a joyful fluency that was contagious.  She had him talking about the strawberry fields before he realized it and she listened with eagerness.  To his surprise, she gave him her number and asked him to call her.

“I want to hear the end of your story,” she said.

He asked her to dinner over the phone a week later, after he had settled in, and that's when they began to see each other.  He hadn't thought of himself as lonely, but he found himself yearning for Carmen whenever they were apart.
His mother and sister had figured them out quickly.  The late phone calls, the faint scent of women's perfume, the rumors.  His sister Rocío had confronted him about it.

“How long do you think you can keep this from Alejandra?” she said.

“It's not your concern,” he said.

“It is if you expect us to keep your secret,” she said.  “If only you spent half the time with your daughter as you do with her.”

“Like I said, it's not your concern.”

“Fine.  Just know that Alejandra is aware of the things that go on around here, more than you can imagine.”

He was silent. He hadn't figured out how to deal with the reality that his daughter was becoming a señorita.  He wanted to keep her from finding out about things, like what happened with her mother.  He had ignored her questions, but he wouldn't be able to avoid them for long.


When he arrived home that night, his sister Rocío was the first to greet him.  It was past midnight.  She asked him how he was doing and he said he was fine.  His mother emerged from her bedroom, a look of relief on her face.

“Are you hungry? I can make something for you to eat,” his mother said.

“No, I'm fine.  I just need some sleep,” he said.

“Felipe, your daughter. . . .  She's going through something.  Boy trouble,” Rocío said.

“We don't know that,” his mother said.

“What else could it be?  You know this is when boys get curious,” said Rocío.

“Ay, you're exaggerating,” his mother said.

“I just got back.  Can't we do this in the morning?”

“Your brother is right.  Let him get some sleep.”

“Well, if it's not about a boy, then it has to be that she knows about you and her.”

“Stop it, Rocío,” his mother said.

“Listen, I'm exhausted.  I'm going to bed and then I'm going to the shop tomorrow,” Felipe said.

“You're just going to shut yourself in the studio and paint,” Rocío said.

“So what if I do?”

“What about your daughter?  When are you going to spend time with her?”

“There will be time for that,” he said.

“Not if you keep avoiding her,” Rocío said.

“Sshhh. . . .  Keep your voice down, you two.  You're going to wake her,” his mother said, taking Rocío by the arm.

“I'll take Alejandra with me.  She doesn't talk nearly as much as you do,” Felipe said to his sister.

“Good,” Rocío said.  She touched her mother's hand and told her she was going to bed.

“She's just worried about Alejandra,” his mother said.

“She worries too much,” Felipe said.  He picked up his duffel bag and walked toward his room.

In the morning his mother made scrambled eggs.  He saw his sister Rocío on her way out for her morning jog.  She was in a pleasant mood, as if their argument hadn't taken place.  But she was like that.  Ready to forgive and forget.  He was different.

He had dreamt about the fields and woken up thinking about Petro.  He wondered how he was doing.  Every time he thought about Petro's hometown, he thought about the butterfly reserve located there.  He had been there once with Alejandra and his wife before she had left.  Alejandra had been very young, which made it difficult to enjoy the trip.  It would be a nice place to visit now.  He could paint it.  He hadn't touched a brush or looked at a blank canvas since his wife had left.  He sketched now, but only to keep his fingers busy when he wasn't working.  He sketched on a work notepad, so Alejandra wouldn't ask questions.

When Alejandra sat at the table, he turned the sketchbook to a different page.  His fingers were always busy, even when his mind was somewhere else, and he didn't want Alejandra to see what he had drawn with the colored pencil he kept in his pocket.  He put the pencil away, slowly, and from the corner of his eye, Felipe watched Alejandra for a few minutes.  He pretended to study the sketchbook in front of him, but he couldn't help notice the way she played with the spoon in her cup, the way she stirred the milk three times before taking a small sip.  She couldn't stay still, same as him, and it made him anxious.

“Is that all you're going to eat?” he said.  She looked at him, her cheeks reddened.

Felipe felt sorry for embarrassing her.  He softened his face and tried to think of something comforting to say, but couldn't.  “Let's go,” he said, as he rose from the table.

At the bottom of the building's stairwell, Felipe held the door for Alejandra so that he could see Carmen's house, but he couldn't see much past the parked cars.  He would call Carmen when he got a moment to himself.  He saw the back of Alejandra and for a second he questioned whether that was his daughter.  She looked different, curvy in certain areas where she hadn't been.  He caught up to her, walked by her side, and glanced over at her a few times, making sure it was Alejandra who he walked with.  He had only been gone for three months, but his daughter was transforming into a woman.  This realization had caught him off-guard, but after a few seconds he felt relieved.  She didn't need him after all.  Alejandra was growing, maturing, with or without him.

They wove through the crowds that gathered near newsstands and food joints.  He glanced at his wristwatch, the duffel bag heavy on his shoulder.  It was almost 9 a.m.  It would be 6 a.m. in Santa María.  The strawberry fields would be ready for harvest when he returned to them and he found that thought comforting.

Felipe stopped at the usual corner, Periférico Sur and División del Norte, the first stop buses made after departing the bus depot, but none stopped.  It was a busy morning.

“How long do you think we'll be at the shop?” Alejandra asked.  He hadn't thought about what they were going to do once they got to his mother's shop.  He had just wanted to leave the apartment.

“Just a couple of hours,” he said.  “Abuela needs some work from me for Monday,” he said, although it wasn't true.

“I've been wanting to go to the shop, but I don't think tía wants to take me there.”

Felipe felt guilty.  He had asked them to keep Alejandra from the shop.  It was his space, where he could work, undisturbed.

When Alejandra was a toddler, she had ruined one of his paintings while he had been away.  His mother had tried to take the blame, but Felipe knew it had been Rocío's fault for setting up Alejandra's playpen in the spare room, the one he had wanted for himself.  He loved Alejandra, but he wanted one thing to call his own.  He knew he was imperfect, but that room, which he turned into a studio, was where his hands worked when he was home.  He could close himself away from world, the way he did when he was picking.  The thought of Alejandra in there again made him nervous.  She would see strawberries fields on canvas frames, and the Pacific, but Alejandra would not see herself in his paintings.  He thought of her, but in relation to everything else, never at the center.

“I'm sure they're just busy,” he said, as he leaned into the street.  He saw a bus and it looked empty.

As the bus neared, Felipe knew he couldn't go through with it.  His heart quickened.  He looked at Alejandra, he felt sorry for her.  It wasn't her fault that her parents were lousy.  He took a deep breath.

“I'm leaving on Monday night,” he said.  “For work.”

He hadn't figured out what he was going to do.  He just knew he needed to be away from there.

“But you just got back,” she said.

He couldn't look at his daughter.  The bus stopped in front of them, he swung the duffel bag over his shoulder, and boarded after her.  Felipe fumbled his way through the crowd.

Alejandra knew better than to question her father.  It was the way she had been raised, but Felipe still couldn't look at her.  He felt ashamed for wanting to leave, but he couldn't imagine staying.

He motioned Alejandra to take the seat by the window.

Once he had regained his composure, he tried to think of how they could spend the day.  To keep up with the charade, they would have to go to the shop.  But what could they do there that would prevent Alejandra from wanting to see what was inside the spare room.  Another question he wouldn't answer, another instance of making her sad.

He heard a couple in the seats in front of them laughing, holding each other.  No one else existed in their world.  At least that's how they acted, Felipe thought.  That's how Carmen made him feel. As if nothing else existed, but them.  He wouldn't call her after all.  It would be cruel.

He noticed Alejandra fidgeting, pulling at her skirt, and then he remembered the boy Rocío had warned him about.  Felipe saw Alejandra looking at the couple in front of them.  He wanted to tell her to look away, but he didn't know how.  He was a grown man and he didn't know how to tell his daughter such a simple thing.  She didn't need him.  Her abuela and tía would know what to do.

They rode the bus in silence, while Felipe tried to figure out how to talk to Alejandra about boys.  If there was one thing he could talk to her about, it was this.

“I know about the boy,” he said without turning to look at his daughter.

“He's not real,” she said, turning her head toward the window.

He leaned close and said, “Boys at this age only want one thing,” even though he couldn't remember himself at thirteen.  But he knew that's what Rocío would have wanted him to say to Alejandra.  Maybe it was true.  When he was thirteen, it had been a different time.

“It's not fair.  I can take care of myself,” Alejandra said, crossing her arms.

Felipe didn't want to look at her.

“I have been taking care of myself.  I'm not a child, but everyone treats me like one.  I can't even wear nail polish,” Alejandra said.

He wanted to tell her that her mother had only just turned fifteen when they married and that love made them do stupid things.  He was ten years older than she and deep down, Felipe knew that Alejandra's mother was running away from something by going with him.  He should have known that she would run away from him.

After some time, Felipe gave up on the subject.  He had tried his best and couldn't think how pursuing the topic would be productive.  Alejandra wouldn't believe him unless he shared a little part of his life and that meant talking about her mother.  But he wasn't ready for that.

“I feel like I don't know you,” she said.

Felipe could only nod.  It scared him that she was asking questions, so he kept her at a distance.  He had kept himself away hoping that Alejandra's questions would subside or that she would accept that the half-truths her Tía Rocío had given her.

“I don't know what to say, except that I understand and don't blame you,” he finally said.

He looked over at her, her face was sullen.

“I like to look out the living room window to watch the sunset, the sun's orange and yellows against the sky.  The colors remind me of the wings on Monarch butterflies, free in the sky,” Alejandra said.

“Do you remember the trip to the butterfly reserve?” he said, looking at her with suspicion.

Alejandra nodded.

“You were only three.”

“I remember,” she said.  “We learned about them in school, the way they migrate North and back.”

Felipe saw her face light up.  He hadn't seen her smile this way in a long time.  This moment reminded him of the times Alejandra's mother had talked about traveling with him, of going North.

“Their life is not glamorous, you know?  They die on the way up there.  They don't have a permanent home,” he said.  He wouldn't encourage Alejandra.  Not the way he had encouraged his wife when she had wanted to go with him North.  She wanted to travel, see what he saw, and he had said no many times.  When Alejandra was born, Felipe thought she would stop asking to go with him, but it only made her want to leave more.  She had complained and he took her with him, only to lose her there.

“I know,” Alejandra said.  “It takes four generations, but they return just to do it all over again.  And I don’t understand why.”

She looked sad again and it only frustrated Felipe.  “Why do you return?  Is it for the woman next door?”

He looked at her with surprise.

“I saw you with her the night before you left,” Alejandra said.  She was beginning to sound like Rocío.

“I'm sorry,” he said.  “That's not the way I wanted you to find out.”  He meant it, even though he knew there was no Carmen now.  She wouldn't wait for him.  She was young and attractive and wouldn't remain single for very long.

He lifted his duffel bag from the floor and began to unzip it.  He searched for the sketchbook.

“Can you pull the cable? We should get off now,” he said.  He heard the bell ring for a stop.  He tore off the drawing he had done in the morning from the sketchbook and folded the page in half.  He handed it to her and stood from his seat, losing his balance because he wasn't holding on to anything.

He made his way toward the exit, his back to Alejandra.  He couldn't watch her unfold the drawing.  Maybe he could convince himself that she hadn't seen it.

The bus stopped and when Felipe didn't see Alejandra next to him, he looked back.  She was still in the seat by the window.  He motioned her to follow him.  He waited for her to make her way down the steps and helped her off the bus once she had reached the landing.  When he gave her his hand, he felt her hold.  He loosened his fingers from her and she let go.





BIO: Casandra Hernández Ríos is pursuing her M.F.A in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. She is the current editor-in-chief of Riprap, CSULB's literary journal. Casandra was recognized as an emerging writer at this year's Literary Women Festival of Authors, where her dream of meeting Aimee Bender came true. Although Casandra writes fiction, she also writes poetry. Her poetry appears in American Mustard.