by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
Speculation . . . enacts a kind of reaching, a gesture toward what I may never grasp but feel compelled to try. And it’s the reaching that matters. The attempted connection. The leap.
[ - to continue without pause in a specified direction in order to touch or grasp something - ]
My grandfather’s smile is a thing made of silver beneath a sun-cured brim as wide as a mesa cooling sweat-slick skin fed by an aquifer flowing so deep you cannot overwork him in these fields of beans or the flatbed Ford delivering barrels of peaches or later in life with the highway crew all concrete and ash his will is his weapon driving him through disappointment to dream his straight-shouldered pose is itself an achievement or maybe even pride with his young family beside him the embrace he long sought so hot so tired in his Depression-era denim perhaps in this field he will build a home from river-cut clay stacked as tight as his knitted fingers a grip he will strain his tendons to hold when his fourth daughter dies trying to breathe in his arms her Rheumatic fever heart a broken bird just one more ghost weighing down his pockets and no matter how many times he crosses the Mohave following jobs to fill nine mouths his wife will still chase the shimmer of chrome rolling on road stripes endlessly West toward the endless ocean but here there is nothing to diminish his shine decades into the future refusing to fade.
The weight in her arms I can almost feel the weight as she adjusts her arms her bare branch arms centering her hips to try and bear it my grandmother carved from sun and shadow glancing not forward nor sideways nor behind scanning the horizon for somewhere anywhere to rest a bird or a cloud or the bright bead of a bee her face resigned to molded exhaustion the baby my mother her third of nine children her housedress cinched tight as the knot on her smile this is not what she saw when she stared out the window of her father’s ranch at the prairie hawks gliding so effortlessly away toward a future so open she could breathe so free yet her bones are still grown from cottonwood roots too stubborn to uproot and although she still dreams of a blue-eyed ocean she will eventually settle in this green bowl valley with an back yard garden of American Beauties and a statue of Mary whose robes hold the rain like pearls on a rose.
Can’t overlook the children in their smart little suits the white sailor hat and the white sailor skirt and what appears to be a Navy blue collar all dressed for a cruise in the New Mexican desert my little girl aunt and my little boy uncle and my infant mother with their quizzical eyes turned toward the lens none of them smiling an odd juxtaposition to their rumpled parents what were they thinking in the summer of `36 as they dressed the kids to a visit the ranch the cute little kids dressed as if to step off the deck from San Pedro or even Laguna with palms and eucalyptus and orange grove breezes is this what she thought as she buttoned their buttons willing herself to the end of the pier my grandmother staring into a sapphire shimmer for a chance to see the relentless sun staring over her shoulder cooled at last in the Pacific and what about my grandfather can he see the battleships looming high as the Sandias in his turpentine clothes painting steel a dead-eye gray heading for Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal carrying friends and brothers-in-law to return as specters in search of their souls but no it’s the children I want to talk about here the little children called to attention pulled from their naps and glass-eyed marbles posed for a portrait of exactly what the desires of their parents or props for an aunt when all they want is to continue dreaming just look at them looking thought balloons rising to test the wind which way is it blowing which choice will their parents make for them next and although in reality this is a pleasant moment at the end of a visit when they will finally go home it’s their frowning expressions asking the big questions what are we doing and where are we going in this one moment nothing is set and everything is still possible maybe Corrales or California or maybe just let the compass needle rest they do not have to crisscross the Mohave desert and open their doors to hitchhiking ghosts with thumbs extended ahead in their paths they could just stay here in this one little field with each one of them wondering what the emulsion will hold.
I once made the mistake of calling this image a Grapes of Wrath portrait of my mother’s young family and she snatched it back from beneath the dining room lamp and said No I was wrong there were no grapes of nothing the Depression afflicted mostly big cities or Dust Bowl farmers near Oklahoma and Texas while her Rio Grande people had all they needed within the furrows and coops and hand-carved pews and what I call poverty was actually abundance and a self-sufficiency forgotten today and my own projection is my own problem and why am I pushing so hard into this frame and what am I seeking a story or dream or a nostalgic distortion of what I have lost or never have had but wait I told her that’s not what I meant what I was trying to see is a kind of resilience rising up from hard ground and harvested perfectly with the shutter blade click these run-on words are reaching through distance like water for roots but let me explain it’s more like the green I painted the sky an accidental translation of a watercolor gold misinterpreted by digital light and expressed precisely in a pixelized grid the pause that happens before dawn when the earth holds its breath to see what comes next and a shade arises like the skin of a young apple or the color wheel color about mid-turn before it reaches the brightest blue.
For me, as a former journalist and columnist rightly bound to fact, research and reportage, the use of speculation in nonfiction is a little like the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Data activates his emotion chip for the first time – transformative. With the flick of a switch, the android is able to engage with his world in a way his logic board alone could not allow. Emotion became an instrument of intimacy, empathy, inquiry, discovery and understanding – of making meaning. Speculation is like that for me. It enacts a kind of reaching, a gesture toward what I may never grasp but feel compelled to try. And it’s the reaching that matters. The attempted connection. The leap. The use of informed imagination allows me to touch a father I never knew. It conjures a dream space into my mother’s past. It lays bare my own desires and vulnerabilities about ethnicity, place, culture, faith. Speculation opens pathways toward truth, not away from it. Like Data and his emotion chip, I can’t turn it off.
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the author of the award-winning Descanso for My Father: Fragments of a Life and Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams. A native New Mexican, he teaches at Colorado State University at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is working on a collection exploring mixed-ness. http://www.harrisoncandelariafletcher.com