The twilight whispered. Shades of lavender and deep purple hung on the sky and lingered above the horizon. I still was not used to the Pacific Coast climate and the sea breeze gave me a case of goose bumps. I suppose I could have gone inside to warm up but my mama would have sent me to bed. There was too much going on outside for that.
In our backyard a fire burned inside a circle of rocks. Around the fire was a tree stump, a couple wooden boxes, an old chair and some stools. Seated on them were the old ones. They all wore hats and each had their own style, some favored fedoras, and here and there were Western-style Stetsons. John, for some reason preferred a Russian style fur hat. They passed a bottle around and each took one a drink. That was nasty because they wouldn’t even wipe off their spit off the bottle.
The old ones were mostly John’s relatives. Some neighbors were there also. They held their hands out to the fire as if to warm them, but it wasn’t really cold, just comfortable. That is except for me. My brother Roberto and I sat on the back porch away from them. I was wishing I could be closer to the fire, but we both sat quietly and listened, that is what well-behaved children did back then.
Who is John? Somehow, John became my new father. His real name was Juan Maria Olivas. Grown-ups like to whisper a lot when they don’t want children to know things. I did not even notice how John and my mother met, but they did and suddenly they were married. He was good to us. He treated me like a son, in fact I was his son. He not only married my mother, he legally adopted all of us. Soon thereafter I had two and baby brothers, Henry and Frank.
During my school years I carried John’s last name and I was known as Charlie Olivas. It was later, Roberto was the first, when he started feeling grown-up, to use our father’s name. In high school I became Carlos Leonardo Najera again. John seemed to understand and did not give us a hard time about it.
When the old ones gathered together they brought their guitars and violins and sang songs they knew. And they talked about the good old days. This was the time before radio and television and there was not much to do but hang around and tell stories. One of them started telling a story about Simon Cohn. It goes like this:
One Saturday night some people came to his store. They were farmers and local cowboys and ranchers. They were in the saloon drinking. Other people were there seated at the tables, and other people were in the store buying things they needed.
Photo Courtesy of the Oxnard Public Library
Around midnight the people finally went away and Simon had a good day of business. One of the things he did for the local ranchers was let them buy on credit. When the farmers sold their crops and ranchers sold their meat and hides they would pay him back what they owed. That night he closed the store and he was checking the day’s receipts before going to sleep. He remembered that he sold a saddle but he did not write it down. It was a busy night after all. He had a few himself and forgot who bought it.
Simon being a businessman was not about to give that saddle away so he came up with an idea. He had a plan. He knew exactly how to find out who bought that saddle from him. He sent the bill for the saddle to all of his customers. This way all the people that didn’t buy the saddle would come to store and complain to him and eventually the man who actually bought the saddle would come in and settle up.
Most of the people laughed about this and praised him for his shrewdness once they found out what he had done. In a little while I’ll write about my own encounter with Simon Cohn.