He Was Just Good Old Gene

WHILE we stood by the truck waiting for Zeke to show up so we could get to work cutting trees, Genaro Martinez poured a can of SAE 30 motor oil on his boots, then rubbed it in with his thick fingers. ``I bet you put that stuff on your hair too,'' I joked. He grabbed me by the hood of my parka and pretended to pour the can down my neck. ``You got much to live for,'' he said. ``Keep going.'' Inside Gene's house, behind us, his wife was getting the coffee bucket ready. It was a solid ranch house with an addition built on. Down the road was the agricultural church built by the settlers at Chama and repaired by Gene's father. I had been in Gene's house for a first morning cup of coffee, and his wife called me respectfully by my first name - you know, like she knew all the good things you ever did and those had been discussed a hundred times by the family. But it was my first time in that house.

Gene was giving me three days work around Christmas because he heard I could use a few extra dollars; a Christmas tree cutter, junk-car dealer, mechanic when he could be, he treated me better than royalty - like one of a very old Hispanic family in the valley. ``Sit there, Hallett.'' His wife pointed to a quilt-covered armchair. ``Gene's on the phone to his dealer in Denver.''

The third man for the job, Zeke, showed up in his new truck and cowboy hat. Zeke would be the tree-climber and sawer. Old Gene hated to take a baby tree at the roots, for a disposable Christmas tree, so he had Zeke climb for the tops of big trees so the tree would recover and come back. Zeke Otiverras brought his own coffee in a silver thermos, fancy as his new truck. Zeke had come up from Mexico a few years back; he married one of Gene's sisters. Now he was more American than we were, in this valley of far America where few people were locked into network programming, by reason of the mountains, or up on the latest in anything. But Zeke must be checking it all out somewhere, for he was state of the art ``near-America,'' down to his designer jeans.

``Brother,'' said Gene rubbing in the oil on his seams of his K-Mart boots, ``Zeke thinks they're going to film him again today.'' He gave Zeke a hearty backslap.

Out there in the national forest, Zeke was strong at hauling, fast at climbing, a thief at sawing, and had brought with him from Old Mexico that graceful pace of work that eludes ordinary men like myself, who run at work and yet get told: ``You got two speeds, boy. Slow and stop.'' And standing under a tree Zeke was 50 feet up in, my gloves dangling idly, Gene moved me: ``Out of the way now. You got a lot to live for, boy.''

On the way home, we stopped with our load of trees at a highway joint. It was dark and I could see the green load chained and roped on the truck under the parking lot neons, a phenomenal day's work. After eating, Gene rolled out his wreathmaking money and bought us all supper. ``Don't,'' Zeke cautioned as I reached for my billfold, as if he thought it were a six-gun. ``Don't. Gene likes you. This is his party.''

Zeke knew the etiquette of these old families. How was I to make it up? I felt both of them had done double work to mine. They could have brought along any number of cousins with names that were more related to the old southern families up to the Arkansas River - which they used to call the color line in Colorado - and they weren't Anglo, like mine. Work was scarce this time of year.

Home, an hour later, there was more hospitality. A second supper was waiting and the candles set like a fiesta. I was shown a chair and a place. Zeke went home to his wife. Gene washed up and called his dealer in Denver. I heard him say he could make the quota they needed. He said, ``Should be up there around 4 a.m.''

``He's driving up tonight?'' I said to his wife. ``I'll go with him. I won't charge,'' immediately feeling mention of money was a strange breach of friendship. His wife smiled gracefully. ``The boys like to go up with him,'' meaning Gene's oldest boys 13 and 15, being a Friday night out of school. There were seven kids. The littlest girl climbed in my lap, assuming I must be some relation. How could such a child with cut black bangs over beautiful eyes be related to oil-booted old Gene with his hands that needed size 12 gloves and stone face that looked like it was carved out of the outcroppings of the harsh valley? This man seemed to attract a fiesta of people wherever he went.

Now I like to think of Gene standing on the porch of his place that night, snow dusting the junk cars, wood pile, and the day's work of trees going to cheer a hundred people in the city, rolling off some more bills proudly but silently to me, for pay. ``Thanks, Gene,'' I said sincerely, knowing now I could buy my own daughter the thing she wanted most for Christmas. He seemed embarrassed at my sincerity. I should have joked him on something. He just said, ``Drive safely home, boy. You got a lot to live for,'' rubbing his tired neck.

I remembered those words after he got into a car wreck a year later and I heard the news that he didn't make it. I remembered those words as I stood outside the church his grandfather repaired and I couldn't get a seat in the carved pews because so many people had come from miles around. Many of them had names that weren't the old settled ones in Huerfano Valley. To everyone he was just good Gene.

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