--ASKING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART
Strawberry Fields Forever
We get there before the rooster crows, before the Mexicans have even arrived, the sun glowing like a stubborn blister over the upraised nub of distant plains.
My brothers are slumped in the backseat of the station wagon, arms folded as if in strait jackets, asleep, Denny trombone-snoring, Robby’s nose an off-tune harmonica. They both have gobs of drool sliding down their jaws.
Mother’s head is turned toward the window, as if there’s something of interest outside, though it’s just acres and acres of strawberry fields forever. Her hair is stacked high like a blonde fern with a scarf tied over a good part of it. She’s got a cigarette pinched between her fingers as she almost always does. The smoke twists toward her cheek, wisps the color of moths massaging her skin, but then it floats up and away, eventually absorbed into the hood of our car.
Mother says to the window, or to me, “Look at that jackass. What a poor excuse for life.”
She’s talking about Jack, the foreman. He’s drunk already, or leftover drunk from the night before. I watch him stagger and sway, splattering piss across the ground, jeans drooped below his hairy buttocks.
“What a pig. A fucking pig.” Mother’s voice is coarse, low, like a man’s.
I wonder if she knows I’m listening. It seems she does, yet most times it’s like Mother’s talking to herself, speaking the things in her mind.
I saw her kiss him once—Foreman Jack—by the left side of the trailer while we were lined up to get paid for our flats. I can’t recall what made me look, why I stretched my head east instead of west, but I did see his mouth jump toward her proffered lips, Jack’s tongue a purple salamander, wriggling. It was somewhat savage and immediate. I think my mother may even have spat on Jack’s face after the kiss, though I can’t be sure.
“Fucking renegades,” Mother says, as the trucks and make-shift buses pull in sending whorls of dust devils into the air. “They’re ruining our country. Before Nixon’s out of office, they’ll have taken over.”
Men—short, stout men; men wearing too much clothing for a day that’s destined to be sweltering; bronze-skinned men; shy, slow-moving men—they hop from the back of the pickups with similar pounces, then turn to help the next one off, their hands upraised.
I’ve always found the Mexican people to be kindest on our planet. None of them here know much more than a few bits of English, but each time they pass by me, I always get an “Hola” and a smile.
“They have their own fucking country. Damn right they do,” Mother says, reading my mind, a trick of hers. “They come here, never pay any taxes, steal our jobs, live on the Uncle Sam’s dime, and do you know why?” She’s still facing the window. Her cigarette is mostly all ash, curling like a gray talon. “Because it’s too harrr-ddd in Mex-eee-co. Because they’d rather get their goddamn handouts from us.”
I don’t reply, don’t speak, just let the nervous silence settle in between us on the vinyl car seat.
I’m wondering when she’s going to give the signal for us to get out, collect our punch cards and empty flats. She rolls down the window, tosses her butt, digs inside her purse and retrieves another cigarette, lights it with a squint that prunes the skin around her lips, inhaling then exhaling a broom of smoke.
When she opens her eyes, she’s staring at me and a sharp chill bites the back of my neck, but I keep my gaze set. I know better than to play chicken with her, yet for some reason I don’t feel like letting her win today. She reaches her hand up to my face and I think she’s going to caress my cheek or maybe slap me, the latter she’s done plenty. Instead, she snaps her fingers on the edge of my nose. It gives me a start.
“Dumb little shit,” she says, nothing in her expression, neither malice nor glee. “Wake your brothers. I’ll pick you up at two.”
I’m the youngest and I know I look the most like him because I keep the sole remaining photo of him in an old box insider the trailer where we live. In the picture, Dad is nearly as skinny as me now. He’s wearing high-waisted trousers synched with a thin belt and a silky looking short-sleeve shirt. His black hair is slicked back and he’s leaning against the hood of a gleaming old Chevy. He’s deep in thought about something, eyes narrowed, forehead creased. I’ve always wondered what was on his mind that day and if it was Mother who snapped the shot.
“Are you deaf?”
I feel like stone, petrified, so she punches the car horn with her palm, while my brothers bump into each other.
“Let’s go,” she says. “You going to let the Mexicans beat you to the punch?”
The trick to being a standout strawberry picker is to do it on your knees. In order to keep the weeds out, or for some such reason, the rows are filled with rocks the size of golf balls. It hurts like hell, kneeling on them, like someone’s thumping you with a ball-peen hammer, but after an hour or so a numbness sets in. Everyone else sits on their butt and scoots as they go, even though it’s more difficult to reach your flat that way. Almost everybody eats as much as they pick, which is forbidden. Me, I don’t eat a single berry, even when my belly’s screaming at me.
Every time Foreman Jack checks my flat and punches my card, he spits a brown patch of chewing tobacco over his shoulder. He never speaks, just mumbles or grunts. There’s a skinny boy around twenty years old who stacks the flats in the back of the pickup. He’s got Foreman Jack’s wide forehead and tiny dog ears, so I figure he’s Jack’s son. Though I’d like to have a dad, I’m glad I’m not related to Foreman Jack.
My knees are already numb.
One of the migrant families brings their infant with them each day. I suppose they’ve got nowhere else to take him. He’s stuffed into a Moses basket at the far end of the east field where the sun is weakest and where his bellowing can’t be heard by Foreman Jack, who spends the bulk of his time swigging whiskey on the end of the loader, pausing to take a piss or punch one of our cards when we bring a flat up for inspection.
The baby’s name is Jose, which means Joseph in English. He’s a cute little butterball, pouches for cheeks, skin the color of root beer, with a runny nose half the time. I don’t tell Mother, but each day I skim some of my pay and stuff it in my sock. At the end of the season, I’m going to give what I have to Jose’s family so they can get a sitter when they want to leave the house. A baby shouldn’t have to be like a handbag you set on the floor at a check stand, or like an infant that gets left in the sun, caterwauling for hours.
The sun is an omnipresent enemy, scalding and cruel. Sweat streams down my ribs, in my eyes and I smell rancid, sour and tangy, like vinegar mixed with urine.
My brother, Rob, says he’s going to be a professional boxer when he grows up. I’ve got no cause to disbelieve him. He throws hooks that leave basketball-sized bruises, and his uppercut can crack teeth. Denny doesn’t know what he wants to be. Me, I’ve decided I want to be a doctor. I know how ridiculous that must sound. There’s junior high and high school, then college and more college afterward, and everything I know about college is that it costs millions of dollars. So, I’m thinking about moving to Mexico when I’m a few years older. Don’t know how I’ll do it, or where I’ll live once I’m there, but I figure, it being such a poor country and all, college will be cheaper, plus there will be folks who need tending to that can’t afford fancy doctors, so I’ll be their guy.
After a few hours picking, my back and ribs always start to hurt.
When I get older, I’ll understand a lot more about how the world works. That’s what Mrs. Masterson says every time I ask a question in class. She’s a really nice lady. Sometimes she slips hard candies into my hand after sixth period. I’ve learned to wink back after she winks first.
Mrs. Masterson is probably a world class mother as well. Though I know it’s an awful sin, there are times when I imagine I’m her son and we’re doing normal things that other families do on TV, like eat dinner at the table talking about the day.
So here’s the best thing I’ve learned about who I am—I’m me and nobody else, and just because others have it good, doesn’t mean I can’t try to better.
Father Dugan told me that. He’s the priest at the cathedral we used to go to before Mother decided it was all a crock and that the drive was a waste of gasoline. The day Father Dugan gave me his advice, I’d been in a ruckus with two of the Schneider boys. They were making fun of my berry-stained hands, saying I had leprosy. When Sister Fiona showed up, it looked like I was the one who had started it.
Afterward, instead of getting lashes, Father Dugan took my hands. He looked at my stained palms then right into my eyes. He said shame was the devil’s way of making a person feel less than, and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. When I started to object, he shook his head and told me I was special, and the way he said it, teary-eyed with a hitch in his voice, well, it seemed true.
Mother shows up around two, sun glare glinting off the station wagon’s chrome parts, the rest of the paint coated in dust the color of gunny sacks. She’s smoking a cigarette and squinting from the smoke that snakes into her eye. It looks as if she’s sizing me up, trying to figure what kind of boy I am, or what kind of man I might be.
Rob and Denny hustle to the car, walking bow-legged, like a couple of gunslingers. I take my time. I don’t want to lose the bills I’ve stuff inside my sock for Jose’s family.
In the passenger seat, I tie a rubber band around the rest of the money I’ve earned and put it on the seat between Mother and me.
I roll down the window to let the hot wind dry my sweat and make a mess of my hair. In the side mirror, I watch the strawberry fields shrink then fade into the distance.