The barking dog awoke me hard at 5:30.
“What dog?” I sleep-wondered.
Then I remembered the family that pulled in next to me late last night, two pick-them-ups piled high with mattresses, dressers, and all the indicia of dislocation, and each truck towing a trailer. There were kids, excited to be out of the car, excited to be setting up camp, excited to be kids, and there were parents, tired of driving, tired of squabbling kids, tired of parking, paying fees and setting up camp, and there were dogs, barking, always barking until the pandemonium resolved into exhausted collapse and everyone piled into the giant family tent, instantaneously asleep.
Until 5-fucking-30 AM, when the dogs began being dogs. The dad was already making coffee and heating up tortillas while the mom began waking, then dressing, then feeding the kids. But unlike last night the dad was fresh, excited, overflowing with confidence, strength, energy … young.
I staggered out to pee.
“Hey!” he said. “Good morning!”
“You didn’t freeze in that tent?”
“Just one or two parts. How about you?”
He laughed. “Me? We got a thousand people in that tent and fifty dogs. We was in a sauna, man! Where you going?”
“Where’s your car?”
“I’m on my bike.”
“Where is it?”
He shrank back. “Man! A bicycle?”
His wife came over. “You poor man! You want a ride? We put your things in the trailer. You can ride up front with Angel.”
“No, but thank you.”
“Ain’t you got no car, man?”
“We’re going to Conroe, just north of Houston to live with my brother. I’m a handyman. I can fix anything. We’re leaving California, man. You sure you don’t want no ride?”
“I’m sure but thanks. Where you from?”
He looked surprised. “No, man, from the jungle. But not no more!”
“Your boys like ice cream?” The smallest one’s eyes brightened at “ice cream” even though it was 25 degrees.
“Sure they do!”
I handed him ten bucks. “Grab something in between here and Houston when they start getting cranky.”
He laughed. “You sure know about driving with kids! Thank you, mister.”
You could tell every penny mattered, this tiny caravan of a reverse Dust Bowl migration, Tom Joad now Angel Garcia, same drumbeat of survival and of fighting might and main for a better life.
The little boy’s eyes followed that ten-dollar bill as his father gripped it. “This nice man gave you ice cream money, Gabriel. What do you say?”
Those small dark eyes met mine. I was ancient, bearded, towering, and he held his father’s hand young-boy tight. “Thank you, mister.”
The words were soft, yet they rolled over me with something fierce, the fierceness of gratitude that left every shred his self respect intact.
“You’re welcome,” I said, equals.