Christmas Surprise: Lessons of Orogrande

Note: This is a story I wrote many years ago. The plot would have to be altered in today’s internet and social media world, but at the same time the heart of the story is as true as Christmas itself…

It was a warm spring day in Orogrande, a nearly deserted mining town in New Mexico, 50 miles northeast of El Paso. The Sharks, Orogande’s contribution to gangdom, were gathered down by the river trying to decide what trouble they could cause that day. Jake, their commander-in-chief, spotted Palermo, the villages designated “idiot,” coming their way. Motioning for his posse to follow his lead, Jake called to Palermo excitedly, telling him to come see the big fish they had just caught. The Sharks, sensing the sport to come, quickly got into the spirit of the joke and huddled around, pretending to admire the fish. They conveniently made it impossible for Palermo to see.

As he had done so many times before, Palermo walked into their trap with child-like trust. He hurried down the river bank and bent over to see their prize. Immediately, Jake got down on his hands and knees behind Palermo, and one of the other Sharks, known affectionately to his friends as “the Blade,” tossed a handful of dirt in Palermo’s face. Palermo stood up coughing and sputtering to brush the dirt out of his eyes. One of the other Sharks shoved Palermo backwards over Jake’s back, head-first into the scummy, stagnant river.

Palermo came up fighting mad, but by that time the Sharks were on their way to torment someone else, laughing and enjoying their little prank to the fullest. Palermo dragged himself up on to the bank and looked up to see John Perez, the town’s mayor and constable, standing at a distance with a thinly-disguised smile on his face. “Hey, Palermo, don’t you know enough to take your clothes off before you go swimming?”

Palermo shouted back in broken English, “Sharks, they push Palermo in river. Why you not stop them?”
“Oh, Palermo, there’s no sharks in that river. You must be dreaming,” and Perez laughed again as he walked away.

Palermo knew it was hopeless. He had been tormented all his life by the whole town of Orogrande. The humiliating laughter rang in his ears at night and kept him awake. The taunts and insults echoed in his dreams, and often he awoke pleading for mercy from a very real-to-life nightmare. As he sat on the river bank sobbing, he tried to think. No one ever gave him credit for thinking, but Palermo thought a lot. He thought about life and wondered why it was so hard? He wondered about how he could get away from Orogrande and start a new life. He dreamed of getting even with all the people who had mistreated and abused him. But the answers he came up with were always the same. He had no money to go anywhere or do anything. People gave him enough food to survive on, and Mrs. Brown let him sleep in her garage. But no one would give him a job or enough money to get away. A few people were nice enough not to tease him. Some just avoided him and told their children not to go near him.

Palermo didn’t understand why that was so. He couldn’t remember how it all began. He had heard people call him the “orphan boy” or “that half-breed” or “illegitimate” or “bastard.” He didn’t’ understand what those words meant, but he knew how they felt. They made him an outcast. They meant that other kids had never been allowed to play with him. He had never had a chance to go to school like the other children. He had no mother or father. But most of all they meant that he was all alone in a cruel and hateful world.

Thinking about it made him cry. Then it made him very angry. He remembered what the Sharks had just done to him and all the years of torment. Anger and hate boiled up in him till he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and started back toward town. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew he was going to get even for at least some of the things the evil people of Orogrande had done to him.

Palermo went straight to Mrs. Brown’s garage. He was in such a frenzy he was not sure what he was looking for. He rummaged around the corner where his cot was, found nothing there and moved on to the other side where Mrs. B kept her car. He found a rusty old axe there and thought for moment of using on Jake or Perez. Then he spotted a can of gasoline, and he knew what he would do.
He was excited and restless. It was only 6 o’clock, and he knew he had a long wait for darkness.

He had not eaten all day; so after pacing the floor enjoying his plan of revenge for awhile; he headed for Smitty’s bar and grill. Smitty ran the only bar in Orogrande, and the upstanding citizens of the town were always trying to run him out of business. But Smitty, along with Mrs. Brown, came the closest of anyone in town to treating Palermo like a human being. “Maybe Smitty understands what it feels like to be an outcast,” thought Palermo, as he turned onto Main Street. Smitty certainly did. He was barely able to support his family on what he made at the tavern. He hated the constant harassment and pressure to close his place. But as always, he was glad to see Palermo and offered him a hamburger and some fries.

As Palermo was finishing his meal, Perez walked in. Seeing Palermo, he picked up where he had left off that afternoon by the river. Only this time he had an audience. Soon everyone in the bar was laughing furiously at Palermo. Palermo tried to ignore them. He took it as long as he could. Then the anger began to boil again. Before he knew what he was doing, Palermo pushed Perez across the room and shouted, “You not laugh when Palermo burn up your house!” Then he turned and ran out, stopping only at the drug store for some matches before going back to the garage.

Perez was annoyed at being pushed, but took the threat lightly. Everyone laughed some more at Palermo’s display of anger. Everyone that is, but Jake and The Blade who were shooting pool in the back room. Almost simultaneously, they had the same idea—a way to get Perez and let Palermo take the blame! They played pool half-heartedly until Perez left the bar. Then they took off to round up the rest of the Sharks.

Smitty couldn’t stop thinking about Palermo all evening. He had never tried to talk much to Palermo, but he really felt sorry for him. When he closed the tavern that night he walked over to Mrs. Brown’s to see if Palermo was still awake. When he found the garage empty so late at night he was afraid Palermo might have been serious with his threat. He ran down Water Street and up Jackson to where Perez lived. Sure enough, he found Palermo hiding in the alley behind the house, waiting for everyone to go to bed.

Palermo was angry that Smitty had come, but then he began to realize that Smitty was right. He would be a dead duck if he torched Perez’s house now. The whole town would know who did it! So, still angry and frustrated, but glad Smitty had saved him from making a stupid mistake, Palermo went back to his cot in the garage and went to bed. He lay awake for hours. He was still very angry about the day’s events and wanted revenge in the worst way. He was so upset he thought of pouring the gasoline on himself and lighting it. In fact, he was still wondering what that would feel like when he heard a commotion outside. He looked out the door and saw a mob coming toward the garage. Perez was leading the way.

“You stinking half-breed, come out and take your medicine,” Perez shouted. Palermo was afraid. He tried to run out the back door, but they were there too. They grabbed him and knocked him down. Someone kicked him hard in the ribs. Finally Perez pulled him to his feet and spat in his face. There was fire in his eyes like Palermo had never seen before. Perez wanted to lynch Palermo on the spot, but cooler heads persuaded him to wait until they could at least go through the motions of a trial. The mob literally dragged Palermo to the jail. He tried frantically to ask what he was being locked up for, but no one would even acknowledge his questions.

Palermo spent a sleepless night, confused and afraid. The jailer on duty kept Perez from killing Palermo, not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to. In the morning they let Smitty in for just a minute. He told Palermo that someone really had burned Perez’s house the night before. Palermo swore he had not done it. Smitty urged Palermo not to tell anyone anything until he could find a lawyer. And then Perez gruffly told Smitty his time was up.

If fate hadn’t taken a hand in things, Palermo would have been railroaded through a trial and hanged before the sun set. But as it turned out, Judge Griffin in Buena Vista, the county seat was on a two-week vacation. In that time the media latched onto the story about Palermo’s case.

Ten days after the fire, a Mercedes with California tags drove into Orogrande. It stopped in front of Smitty’s place. A well-groomed three-piece suit got out and looked around, then went inside. The stranger ordered a drink and began asking people about Palermo. Nobody in Orogrande usually wanted to talk to strangers, especially not about Palermo, but Smitty overheard the questions and asked the man why he was so interested in Palermo? The stranger said he might be able to help Palermo, but he needed to know about his parents. Smitty said he had only been in town eight years. The only person he could think of who might know anything would be Mrs. Brown.

It was a long shot, but the man headed for Mrs. Brown’s little house on Third Street. Mildred Brown was a kindly African American woman of about 60. She, too, was leery of this stranger at first, but said she would tell him what she could if it would help Palermo. He asked her if she knew anything about Palermo’s mother. Reluctantly, Mrs. Brown related the painful story. “Palermo’s mother was a Mexican girl who just wandered into town one day. No one knew where she came from. She stayed in town, mostly doing housework for people. A few months later it became apparent that she was pregnant. She claimed the baby’s father was young John Hartford, son of J.T. Hartford. Hartford,” she explained, “owns the Orogrande Copper Mines where everybody in town works. Well, Maria, that was her name, she hid here in my house until the baby came. Mr. Hartford sent his son away to school. But when he found out Maria was still here he told some of the men who work for him to ‘take care of her,’ and they killed her.” Mrs. Brown was in tears. “I don’t know why they didn’t kill the baby too, but it would have been better for him if they had!”

“And the baby was Palermo?”

“Yes. I took care of him as best I could. But they wouldn’t let him go to school. They threatened to run us both out of town if I let him live in the house with me. Everyone picks on him. I don’t blame him for setting that fire. He took so much hate for so long!”

“Here’s a picture, Mrs. Brown. Could you tell me if this could be Palermo’s mother?”
“Why yes it is. Where did you get it?”

The gentleman explained that he was one of several attorneys who had been working for the Spanish government for years trying to locate the daughter of King Ferdinand. She had come to the U.S. twenty years ago to study at U.C.L.A. She ran away from there about 20 years ago and was last seen in northern New Mexico. “You see, Mrs. Brown, if your story is true, Palermo is the heir to the throne of Spain. I saw a story about his case on CNN last week. His age and the location and the fact he had no family inter4ested me enough to check into it further. It seems to have paid off.”

Mrs. Brown sat in stunned silence. Palermo, a prince!

The rest, as they say, is history. With the best attorneys money could buy, Palermo was cleared of the arson and murder charges against him. The Sharks were convicted of arson and manslaughter and sent to prison. The whole town of Orogrande was flabbergasted and turned itself inside out trying to redeem itself for 18 years of abuse.

Palermo was flown to Madrid where his grandfather was dying. In less than a month, he had gone from village idiot, to prisoner, to crown prince. Palermo had a very hard time understanding what it was all about. But with the aid of special tutors he was soon able to read and speak both Spanish and English. He had even begun to grasp a little history and political science by the time his grandfather died and Palermo became king.

A few months after his coronation the new king announced he would be making a trip to visit the United States to confer with the President. Palermo had arrangements made so he could also visit Chicago and Los Angeles, and he wanted a special stop in Orogrande included in his itinerary.

When the big day arrived, everyone in Orogrande turned out for a parade in Palermo’s honor. It was the biggest even in the history of the town. They had streamers and banners all over town welcoming their most famous son. There was a VIP banquet in his honor at the high school. At the banquet Perez and J.T. Hartford both gave long flowery speeches saying that things would certainly have been different if they had only known who Palermo was. They apologized profusely for any “inconveniences” the town might have “unknowingly” caused Palermo. They said they were glad that was all in the past and could be forgotten now. They presented Palermo with a key to the city and revealed elaborate plans to erect a statue in his honor on the town square.

Finally, Palermo rose to speak. In flawless English he thanked his former tormentors for their honors. Then he asked to see Mrs. Brown and Smitty. The banquet committee was embarrassed. They hadn’t even invited either Smitty or Mrs. Brown. So everyone waited while Smitty and Mrs. Brown were escorted to the high school by Perez’s part-time deputy. And then Smitty and Mrs. Brown were embarrassed because they weren’t dressed for the occasion. That was soon forgotten as Palermo greeted his old friends warmly. He presented Mrs. Brown with a diamond pendant and guaranteed both of them comfortable income for the rest of their lives. It was his thanks to them for being the only two friends he ever had.

Then abruptly Palermo started to leave. Mr. Hartford stopped him and explained to him that his copper mine was in deep financial trouble. He pointed out that the whole town’s economy depended on that mine. He was wondering if Palermo could find any way to help them out. Hartford repeated how terribly sorry they all were about the way things had been in the past.

Palermo listened politely and then started to walk away again. Hartford was persistent. “Palermo! I mean your majesty. This was your home. I am probably your grandfather. We desperately need your help! Don’t you care about us?”

Palermo turned and almost laughed in Hartford’s face. “When did you ever care about me, Mr. Hartford?” With that, his royal highness left Orogrande for the last time.

No, they didn’t live happily ever after. Few people do. But lest you should judge Palermo too harshly, it wasn’t long after this final visit that sizeable contributions of cash from an anonymous source began to arrive in the office of Mayor Perez. They came with a simple designation: “For improving the welfare of the citizens of Orogrande.”

Many people speculated about this donor. Only Smitty knew for sure, and Mrs. Brown, who found herself listening over and over to an old recording by Mahalia Jackson of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy, we didn’t know who you was.”