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The Curious Life of Americo Martinez


It was a hot, long, dusty California day. Americo made his way, walking along rusted railroad tracks, through an arid region overlooking the ocean. His curiosity was roused by a couple of old abandoned rail cars on a siding and a few empty buildings up ahead. He left the track when he spotted a worn out dirt footpath leading to the peak of a rather small foothill.

It was a beautiful day to be outside. Americo Martinez knew what it was like to live outside. At the top of the hill Americo saw what he was looking for. There was an old patch of short cactus and there were jack rabbits, which meant stew.

He reached into his backpack for his snare, and then spotted a long rattlesnake making his way into the patch of prickly green. It was not going to be his day to snare a rabbit. He spotted a mother and baby leap into a hole sensing the danger. An old hare stood behind a round gray pointy shield, hoping to go unnoticed.

Americo turned and lay on his stomach to watch. Approaching the cactus patch was a gruff old coyote with thoughts of a meal on his mind. A startled rabbit bolted and the coyote gave chase. Americo watched closely, then remember the rattlesnake and sneered at himself for becoming distracted.

At his side, close enough to strike was the rattlesnake. “You should not waste much time studying the survival skills of the rabbit,” he offered and slid off raising a bit of dust.

Americo got off of his stomach and stood. He looked back down at the setting. The old rusty water car standing on the track with a hole in the side caught his attention. The fading sign painted on the side of the large building said, ‘Duarte Paint and Dye.’ Then he spotted a water well, and made his way to see if there was fresh water. When he got there, at the well, a dropped pebble hitting water made him smile. He thought he might stay.

He looked around his attention being grabbed in every direction. The hole in the side of the water tanker won, and he walked over to look inside. He was not tall enough to climb in and went off looking for a box to make a step. Once found he looked inside and told himself, ‘this is home.’ He put his head on his backpack and watched as the sun left the evening sky.

His first morning at this location he went exploring. In the big building he discovered packets of dyes in all colors. There were cans of linseed oil and there were brushes. There were a bunch of empty one gallon cans. Dust and stale air sent their message. He found a short ladder, which he immediately dragged over to the water tanker.

In a matter of days he became accustomed to his new empire. He planted a small bean field near the well. He used those empty cans to haul the water. In the afternoons he would go to the top of the small foothill and lay there watching the cactus patch and the rabbits. There was a pattern to the activities. The rabbits mated. The mothers took the babies in their care. Mid afternoons a rattlesnake would come through looking for a meal. Near dusk, the slowing coyote found a slow or lame meal. Americo watched and learned where he would fit into this system.

With fresh water always at hand, there was time for Americo’s imagination. He learned quickly and his study was of the packets of dyes and the small cans of linseed oil. Soon he taught himself to make paints and it freed his spirit. His first project was the side of a smaller building. He found himself painting the images of the cactus patch on the far side of the foothill. He found he could paint a believable rabbit that stood seven feet tall. He could imitate the likeness of a prickly pear and a barrel cactus. With some effort he found that with the proper mixture of cadmium yellows he produced sparkling sunsets.

At the end of his first year his bean field was an acre in size. The two buildings were painted along all four walls with scenes from the top of the foothill. Right there was the old coyote, scruffy coat and all, eyeing a plump young rabbit. Below a window, in the shade of the cactus lay a rattler with several tiers of rattle watching all that happened in his field.

The discovery of packets of dye labeled manganese blue, cerulean blue and Winsor green allowed him to expand his visions. In the light of the late afternoon sun Americo began his ocean vistas. The decoration started out slow. The inner oval wall of the water tanker, became a grotto. Below the surface, lazy fish drifted with the kelp. Along the long wall, he painted a water line that when seen from the hole in the side of the tanker, tricked the eye and the mind into making a person feel like they were going entering the warm sea water. The effect was to make his home feel cooler and welcoming.

The more he worked, the more energy he seemed to have. He had taken to painting on wooden slats and taking these smaller works to a wide spot in the road about five miles away. The owner of a trading post would take the paintings in exchange for store credit. This allowed Americo small sums for clothing and sandals.

On a day, near the end of a his second year, he was up at the top of the foothill watching the families of jack rabbits and the ever present rattler waiting for a meal when he heard an engine. He turned to a sitting position and watched a pickup truck drive into his complex. Unsure of what to do, he stayed at the top of the foothill and watched as a young woman climbed out of the truck. She wore a short skirt and shirt. She pulled a large pack from the front seat and slung it over her shoulder. With the front door of the truck still open, she began to walk around and look at the murals that decorated the walls of the once decrepit buildings. Her cowboy boots kicked up a little dust.

Americo watched as she reached into her bag and pulled out a camera. She began to take pictures. She studied the murals and made sure she captured the rattler in the shade and the rabbit hiding behind a prickly leaf. She took several pictures of the seven foot rabbit. She took pictures of the bean field and water well with sweet pea vines growing along the well. She spotted a small strawberry patch that Americo transplanted to his complex. The young photographer spun in circles taking in this picturesque hideaway.

Her eyes caught the small ladder leaning against the water tanker and walked toward it. This brought Americo to his feet. He rushed down the worn dirt path from the top of the foothill leading toward his home. He watched her as she approached and called out ‘hello.’

Then she was out of sight between the tanker and himself. She took the steps up the ladder. “Hello.” She poked her head inside and gasped. “Hello?” She climbed inside. Her camera clicking away.

Americo reached the ladder, dusty and thirsty. “Hello?” He called.

The smiling face of a young lady, carrying a camera popped through the hole. The signs on the doors of the pickup stated, Duarte Photography.


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