Check out my stop on the blog tour for The Road to Delano by John DeSimone!
The Road to Delano
by John DeSimone
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: March 10th 2020
Rare Bird Books
A high school senior, Jack Duncan dreams of playing college baseball and leaving the political turmoil of the agricultural town Delano behind. Ever since his father, a grape grower, died ten years earlier, he’s suspected that his mother has been hiding the truth from him about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. With his family’s property on the verge of a tax sale, Jack drives an old combine into town to sell it. On the road, an old friend of his father shows up with evidence that Jack’s father was murdered. Armed with this new information, Jack embarks on a mission to discover the entire truth, not just about his father but the corruption endemic in the Central Valley. When Jack’s girlfriend warns him not to do anything to jeopardize their post-graduation plans and refuses to help him, Jack turns to his best friend, Adrian, the son of a boycotting fieldworker who works closely with Cesar Chavez. The boys’ dangerous plan to rescue the Duncan family farm leaves Adrian in a catastrophic situation, and Jack must step up to the plate and rescue his family and his friend before he can make his escape from Delano. The Road to Delano
is the path Jack and Adrian must take to find their strength, their duty, their destiny.
he voices from the fields woke Jack
early on Saturday. The musky odor of grapes sifted into his bedroom even though
his closed window was shut to the morning cold. He pulled back the drape and
row upon row of trellised vines emerged from the gauzy twilight. They stretched
to the horizon on three sides of his house. He thrust the window up and leaned
out, and a biting wind chilled his face. Thick dark clouds filled the sky, and
the voices of workers trimming and bundling echoed in the morning stillness. In
these quiet moments, he imagined the land calling to him. Did it matter anymore
that all of it was gone?
“Jack, you up?”
his mother called from downstairs.
Off to the east, a red bruise ran across the rugged spine of
the Sierra peaks. The air heavy with moisture, it was time to get on the road
before a storm rolled in.
Jack slipped into his jeans and plaid shirt, tall and
sinewy, hardened from work and sports. Ella, his girlfriend, always told him he
never fought his clothes like some guys; they moved with him. He didn’t know
what to say when she said things like that. He brushed back his blond crew cut
and stooped to tie his boots, then he snatched his sheepskin coat off the hook
by the door. His mother called again.
The day was already half gone from
the tone of her voice.
In the kitchen, he grabbed a piece of toast, slurped some
coffee, and bolted outside.
He mounted the cab of his father’s dirt-splattered combine
parked by the rickety porch of the Victorian, now tired and sagging. Jack fired
it up and the engine idled under his throttle foot. The strong pulses surprised
him after all those years of sitting idle. He revved it up, ready to make its
last run into Delano.
The cab of the boxy, once-bright yellow combine, now the
peeling paint, was pocked with rust, perched over the rotary thresher blade in
front, raised for road travel. The square separation box that stripped the
stalks of their grain pods hunched behind him. Most of the gauges worked—fuel,
oil, temp, volts. He flicked on the headlights in the gray morning, two above
on the cab’s roof and two below, illuminating the rusting threshing blade.
“Mr. Lacy’s waiting for you.” His mother stood on the porch,
her arms crossed over her chest. Her back erect, and her gray hair pulled back
in a ponytail, still marked with the leanness of one who worked the land.
Despite his sheepskin coat with the collar up and a knit cap
over his crew cut, the damp chill sunk through. He tugged on the rim of his
cap, snugging it tight, ready to go. The importance of the moment weighed on
him. She was counting on him. He eyed the road at the end of the drive.
“I’m expecting you back by ten.” Tall and pensive, she
studied him with her steely gaze. Fatigue, worry, or both, Jack wasn’t certain,
had settled around her eyes, etching thin branches that fanned out to her
temples. “Don’t stop for anybody. If any of those strikers get in your way,
just plow through them, you hear?”
He nodded, but he wouldn’t be plowing through anyone. With
this beast on the road, folks naturally gave way.
Standing on the porch with an expectant look in her eyes,
she suddenly appeared younger, fresh-faced and fearless, the way she must have
looked to his father before he went off to work his fields. Before their life
had become unraveled and they had to sell everything, down to the last working
piece of the old ranch to keep a roof over their heads.
He ran his hand over the control panel. This is where his
father used to sit. He gripped the wheel. Somehow, it had become a measuring
device for what his father had missed all these years. The baseball games he
had never seen Jack play, the fun they never had together. He pushed down hard
on the brake pedal and fiddled with the front rotor switch. If he spun these
blades, would they speak to him? Maybe there was some lever here he could pull
that would fill in all the blanks in his life, that would tell him why his
father had left them to their own fates. He shook his head. He was just fooling
himself—there was no way of knowing what his life would have been like with his
father around. Now was an excellent time to be rid of this memory-laden
A shaft of brightness broke through. Shielding his eyes, he
squinted into the sun peeking from behind an ominous bank of blackbottomed
clouds. He had to get moving before the sky broke open.
Ella waited in her black-and-gold trimmed El Camino under
the spreading oak tree at the front of the yard. She had agreed to follow him.
If the machine broke down, she could drive him into town for help. Ella waved,
and her long brown hair caught in the rising wind, covering her face. They had
met their sophomore year, and now they both were graduating in June. He
signaled back, released the brake, and eased out the clutch, which gave off a
whiny clank as he shifted into first. The boxy contraption rolled forward,
rattling and jiggling, out of the yard.
He turned into County Road 33, a hard-packed dirt road. A
chill damp wind kicked harder against his face. He passed the Dakota family’s
fields that already sprouted a spring crop in some of the straightest rows he
had ever seen. The air smelled of dark earth, freshly upturned and dark with
moisture. The sun ducked in and out from behind a bank of black-bottomed clouds
blowing right at him.
He had driven in this weather. It wasn’t pleasant, but the
land had never swallowed him whole. It was eight miles to Delano and Lacy’s
Tractor dealership. About an hour and a half drive if he trotted this beast.
The wind whipped his face. At one time, the cab had side
windows, but they had long ago disappeared. The windshield had one working
wiper. The rubber blade had rotted away, but it might help some. He pressed the
accelerator, taking it up to six miles per hour, but the motor cowling behind
him vibrated violently, so he eased off.
His mother’s angst over driving these roads in a rickety
combine wasn’t hard to understand. These weren’t the easiest of times around
Delano. She wouldn’t stop reminding him of what had happened just last week
down the road. Thugs had waylaid a carload of strikers and busted out their
windshield, their headlights, and threatened their lives unless they left the
county. But no one would bother a guy in a combine going about his business.
A muddy road was the biggest threat. If the combine got
stuck in the mud, it would take a couple of tow trucks to yank it out.
Something his mother couldn’t afford. She needed every penny to open her shop.
After crossing over Highway 99, County Road 33 turned into
Cecil Road. The road was a straight shot into town, but the combine was too
wide to take directly into town, so he would need to hang a right on D Street,
and then turn left onto Kelly Avenue. Lacy’s Tractor Dealership was right on
the corner of Kelly Street and F Street. It would be an easy drive.
Ella drove close behind with her lights on. He made the turn
on D Street, and it was a straight run down a freshly graveled dirt road that
gently undulated with the land. It sliced through pastureland. Drainage gullies
ran along each side.
The rain began in sporadic windswept sheets. He buttoned up
his jacket, pulling the sheepskin collar tighter against him. Heavy rain beat
in slanting waves on the thin roof. The wind whipped water into his face,
soaking his jacket, running down his jeans. He gritted his teeth and leaned
forward peering into the gray. Already runoff gathered in shallow pools in the
He switched on the wiper. It smeared the water around in a
blurry mess, so he shut it off. The road softened, and the big machine wobbled
on the uneven road, threatening to bog down. He gunned the motor and squinted
to see through the deluge. Once, then again, the tall slick tires slipped in
the soggy earth, and the cab rocked in the wind. He willed the machine to keep
moving, hunched forward over the wheel, face to the stinging wind.
The clouds lowered and heaved toward him. He held the
machine steady on the center crown. If the motor didn’t die on him, he could
make Delano before he froze or drowned. He plowed slowly through a puddle
halfway up the tires, feathering the clutch and gas to keep moving. Not too
fast so the tires wouldn’t dig in.
At a deeper depression, he trotted the combine down the
muddy slope, slow and steady, keeping his progress firm, until the left rear
tire lost traction. A swift current pushed him to the right. Downshifting to
first, he throttled it up, easing the clutch out until the front wheels of the
boxy machine plowed on. The motor strained as he gassed it. The rear wheels
grabbed, and he slushed forward up and out of the mud onto the graveled road.
The El Camino stopped at the opposite edge. He halted and
leaned out of the cab. She would never make it through. Ella yelled at him from
the half-open door. The rain swiftly plastered her hair to her face. She would
backtrack to the 99. Get off the dirt road, and wait for him where Kelly Street
crossed under the 99. That’s where the pavement began. He waved her off and
moved on. If he stayed in one place too long, the combine would sink. He had to
Rain pelted him in windswept sheets, obscuring his sight to
just feet. Creeping along he saw two red eyes staring at him off to his right
through the watery veil. He cupped his hand over his eyes, blinking away the
water. Could be a driver standing on his brake pedal, run off the side of the
road. He rolled closer. Sure enough, it was a white Cadillac, late fifties,
with a black landau top. Its rear taillights were two bullets of red in the
gloom, and the front wheels were off the road in the water-filled gully. The
tail fins stuck out into the road like an artifact from space half buried in
the mud. He crept up beside it. Was someone hurt?
The driver door opened and a man in a three-piece suit
stepped into the downpour. He wore a black fedora that shed water off in
sheets. Obscured by the brim of cascading water, the man stood tall in the rain
as if it were a sunny day, grasping a silver metallic attaché case like Mr.
Franks his math teacher at school used.
A fool city boy for sure. He would drown out here behaving
like that. Jack inched the machine closer to the tall, lean man, dressed like a
slicker among the pastures. The rain slacked a bit, and the man lifted his chin
and gave Jack a steady gaze. He did not seem at all distressed.
Jack leaned toward him. “You look familiar, Mister. Do I
The man touched the brim of his hat, “Herm Gordon. I’ve
known you since you were a child, but you probably don’t remember me. I was a
friend of your father.”
Sure, the man in the photos with Dad in the farm office. The
guy with his arm around Dad in the plowed field. Jack set the brake. The
combine idled. A bright beam broke through a patch of dark sky.
He clambered down into the muddy road. Herm extended his
open palm ignoring the fact he was being soaked by a downpour. They shook.
“Pleased to finally meet you, Jack.”
“If you need a lift, hop on the running board, Mr. Gordon. I
can take you into Delano.”
“I don’t need a ride, Jack. I have something for you.” He
held out the silver briefcase. “Could you step into my car for a few moments?
I want to show you some important
documents that pertain to your father. Then you can be on your way.”
He patted the case. Water dripped off his flat brim down his
shoulders. “We don’t have a lot of time, Jack.”
Jack shook his head at the craziness. The rain slowed, and
he sighed thinking about stopping for some fool in an ill-fitting suit. But
this wasn’t just any old guy. Herm Gordon was a longtime friend of the family.
He looked the same from the photos, only with creases down his cheeks.
“I’ve got to get this machine into Delano before it floods.
Do we have to do this now?”
“I need to show
you this before you sell the combine.”
Jack stepped back
a pace. “How’d you know about that?”
“Heavens, Jack, Chuck Lacy over at Lacy’s Tractor is one of
my best friends. I worked for him for more than forty years. He mentioned your
predicament to me. I knew you’d come right down this way since this is the most
direct route into Delano for big farm equipment. Besides—,” his voice broke off
for a moment as if lost in a memory, taking in the creaky machine that idled
just a few feet from him. A note of sadness flickered across the man’s eyes.
“I sold this thing to your dad. What, thirty years ago,
now.” The man turned to the road. “We drove it right along here to get it to
“And you know why we have to sell this?” He jerked a thumb
over his shoulder.
“Everyone knows, Jack. The county published the tax sale
notice in the papers. But that’s not the point. Lacy told me you’d be bringing
it in today, so I figured this is where’d I’d get a chance to talk. I know why
you shouldn’t have to sell it.”
“Time’s slipping away, Jack. If you don’t show up soon in
Delano, your mother will be on the phone with the sheriff. But before you sell
that machine, I have some information for you. You need to know the truth about
your father. Besides, it looks like the suns coming out and the road will be
drier soon if you wait it out a bit.”
Jack lifted his cap and wiped the water from his face. What
good would it do to bring that up now? He had to get to Delano. Jack stared at
the man. He couldn’t completely stifle his curiosity about his father.
“What do you know
about my dad?”
Herm Gordon patted the case and turned to the Cadillac
DeVille. The big car angled off the road with its right front wheel in the
ditch and the left on the lip of the slope. To reach the drivers’ door, you had
to step into the muddy ditch, but the back door was an easy step right off the
road. Herm opened the DeVille’s back door, the interior dark and inviting. He
motioned for Jack to enter.
“How long’s this
going to take?”
“Not more than
Jack studied the road ahead. The rain had lifted, and the
car and combine lay in a patch of warming yellow light. Ahead, clouds of fog
gathered on the road. If he waited five minutes, the way would firm up, and the
mist could blow off. But he’d need to get going before the Tule fog set in.
The combine’s motor sounded strong and would idle just fine
for five minutes. Jack slid into the back seat and sank into the plush
upholstery. The air smelled sweet like cherry tobacco.
“I’m sorry about the water and the mud, Mr. Gordon.” The car
was warm and dry and felt comfortable after that jittering ride.
“Don’t worry about that, Jack.” He settled in and slammed
the heavy door. The dark brown upholstery with brocade ropes across the back of
the seats made him feel like he was in a rich man’s limousine. He had seen cars
like this in town but never been in one. He glimpsed the combine out the back
window, but he couldn’t hear it. The quiet was eerie but pleasant.
Herm took off his fedora and tossed it in the front seat. He
wiped back his gray hair, wringing out the water. He retrieved two hand towels
from the front seat, handed one to Jack.
“Take off your coat and dry yourself off,” Herm Gordon said.
“You’ll be more comfortable.”
Jack didn’t want to, but it had become soggy. He shrugged
out of it and laid it on the front seat, then dried his face and hands. Herm
flopped down the hand rest between the seats and put the case flat between
them. He snapped the two latches, lifting the lid toward Jack. Gordon rifled
through papers inside the case, looking for something, his eyes crinkling with
“Here it is.” Herm
pulled out a thick manila envelope.
Jack fidgeted. Had he made a mistake getting in the car? He
should go right now, get on with his trip.
“What’s so urgent
I’ve got to see it right now?”
“Patience, my boy.” Gordon opened the flap. With one eye on
Jack, Herm slid out a document, stamped with official seals and signatures.
“This is a copy of
San Francisco PD’s police report.”
“Why don’t you come by the house and show this stuff to my
mom? She’s the one who would want to see it.”
Herm spoke low and deliberate. “Your mother’s seen it.” He
slid the police report back in the envelope and set it on top of the silver
case. “I think you ought to know the truth about your father.”
“What truth?” Jack ground his teeth as he studied Herm’s
face. This man knew his father well. There were photos of the two all over the
farm office wall. It was likely the man knew something his mother would never
tell him. His mother probably had already told him everything she planned to
say about his father. She had a reluctance to give him too many details about
how they lost the land. That had always bothered him. Here in the oddest of
place, at this crucial moment, the truth just happened to meet him on the road.
He tried to figure if Herms showing
up here was a coincidence or an answer to what he’d always craved.
He turned and eyed the combine through the back window. He
couldn’t hear it, but he could see it vibrating as it idled in the road. The
machine would be just fine while the road dried.
“Jack.” Gordon fixed his tan eyes on him, clear like the
wind sweeping over a ripening wheat field. “You need to know how your mother
lost her land.”
“She always told
me Dad lost it in a card game.”
“He never gambled
“The night he died,” Herm said. “He gave up gambling when he
married your mother. I know that for a fact.”
Jack caught himself gaping at the man’s words. His mother
had always told him his father had fallen into his old habits of gambling and
drinking. There was something strange about her story and that old man
Kolcinivitch would end up owning his dad’s 4,000 acres of grape fields over a
“Tell me, Mr.
Gordon. Was my dad drinking the night he died?”
Herm tapped the document. “Read the police report and decide
for yourself what he was doing.”
Jack slowly lifted the report. “What does this all have to
do with me selling the combine today?”
Gordon tightened his lips. “You’re a lot like your daddy,
Sugar, you know?”
“No, I don’t
“I’ve watched you
play, Jack. You’re good.”
Jack had seen him at some of his games, watching from the
top of the bleachers. In a town with little entertainment, it wasn’t unusual to
see farmers, kids, and families satisfy their love of sports watching where
“You have the tools to be good, Jack, and you know it.
You’re so much like Sugar at times it takes my breath away watching you.”
“He was a gambler.
He lost everything.”
“Farming is the biggest gamble of all time, young man. Every
farmer in the valley risks a dollar to make a nickel. He was a good man. A real
good man. He tried to stand up to what’s been going on in the valley a long
“What about his
“It was a gift.
You should be so lucky.”
Jack scoffed at that and turned to the window. This old man
had a loose tile or two. Jack opened the door a crack edging over to leave.
Herm gripped Jack’s damp arm and held him tight.
Gordon narrowed his gaze at Jack. “Just take a minute and
read this police report. It’ll clear up some stories you’ve heard about your
“Let go of my arm.” Jack didn’t fear for his safety, he
could break this old coot in two if he had to. With the door open, he could
hear the combine’s motor purring strong. He tried to twist away, but the old
man’s grip was solid.
With his free hand, Herm Gordon opened the case and then
slammed it shut. “Here’s what you need to get back your land.” He slapped
something down on the case but kept it covered with his hand. Jack ceased
struggling, eyes glued to the case.
Gordon slowly removed his hand and released Jack at the same
A deck of Bicycle
playing cards. “They’re Sugar’s.”
More clouds rolled in and the day turned gray, a low mist
lingering on the road.
“What do I do with
“You’ll know soon
Jack gave him a
hollow smirk. “You’re crazy.”
“Give me your
baseball cap?” Herm said, his eyes now bits of coal.
He hesitated, but the old man fixed him with a hard stare
until Jack handed it over.
Gordon took the cap then set the cards in Jack’s lap. He
tapped the report. “Read the first couple of pages. It’s a long report. They
interviewed a lot of folks. Then you can be on your way. The sun is out. It’s
better you waited. You’ll make good time to Delano.”
Jack slammed his door shut. The quietness returned. The air
thickened with the closeness of something he always feared, knowing the truth.
Herm eyed him. Jack scanned the first page. Under the logo of the SFPD was his
father’s name and address. His pulse quickened. Why hadn’t he ever seen this?
“Jack, this’ll take just another minute,” Herm Gordon said.
“I have something in the trunk to give you before you leave. I’ll be right
back.” Herm’s door opened and slammed shut.
Jack leafed through the thick report. So many details here from
the night his father died. The trunk popped. A commotion of thuds and clangs
sounded like Herm throwing junk around looking for something. What did he have
He stared at the cramped writing on the first page. He held
it up to his window to read it. By the second page, hotness seeped out of his
gut and settled in his upper chest. By the third page, it smashed upward into
his throat and face, flushing his cheeks.
If this was true, she had been lying to him for the last ten
years. His father hadn’t been gambling. The night he died, he had given a
speech that made people angry. The report wasn’t clear why they were angry.
A fight broke out. Someone had punched his father, who fell.
The hotel staff called the cops.
What followed was page after page of eyewitness accounts.
His father had been seen leaving the conference hall in a heated conversation
with a group of men. What men? It didn’t say. There were no reports of gambling
or drinking as Jack had always been led to believe.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. All
the baseball games Dad had missed. Why? A sharp pain filled him as if he had
opened the door to a room he dreaded entering.
Who were these men? He didn’t know how long he sat in the
darkness, eyes closed in a rigid fear. Why would his mother keep all of this
from him? What was that speech about that bothered so many of the men? Peering
through the front windshield, he caught the tail end of green and yellow smudge
far down the road on its way to Delano.
He scrambled out of the car just in time to see the combine,
faded green and yellow, disappearing into the swirling mists of the billowing
Tule fog that swallowed the road.
Yanking the driver’s door of the Cadillac open, he reached
to start the engine. No key in the ignition. Frantically he searched the floor,
the glove box, in the crevices of the seat, everywhere he could think. It took
him another minute to realize even his coat from the front seat was missing. He
climbed out and stared up and down at the empty road. Not a sound. Man and
machine had disappeared into the mist. Jack could chase him for days and never
find him. The county was a spider web of innumerable farm roads, spreading in
every direction. But he had to find that combine.
He stooped to pick up something on the road. A suit jacket.
Herm Gordon’s jacket. What was that guy up to? Why would he take Jack’s sopping
jacket and hat and leave his suit coat? He dropped it in the mud. How did he
explain this to his mom?
“What have I done?” he said loud enough so that the black
and white mottled-faced Holsteins by the wire fence lifted their heads and
stared at him with their milky eyes.
About the Author
John DeSimone is a novelist,
memoirist, and editor. He’s co-authored bestselling memoirs, The Broken Circle: A memoir of escaping
Afghanistan, and others. He taught writing as an adjunct professor at Biola
University, and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for nearly twenty
years. His novel, The Road to Delano,
is a coming of age novel set during the Delano grape strike led by Cesar Chavez.
BookSirens said, “It’s more than a little Steinbeck, in a good way….” He lives
in Claremont, Ca, and can be found on the web at www.johndesimone.com
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