By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
There were, Julio thought, two clear advantages to working in the fields rather than in the groves. For one thing, you did not have to climb a ladder to pick tomatoes, and thus there was much less risk of breaking your bones. Besides that, a full basket of tomatoes weighed less than half as much as a boxload of oranges, a difference for which your back was grateful at the end of a day in the fields. Also, he suddenly remembered, there was the matter of snakes. In the fields he had seen only one, a watery green whip said to be harmless unless you were a bug or a mouse; but the groves had been crawling with mean little rattle-tailed vipers.
He was working swiftly but with care not to bruise the ripe fruit. He flipped another couple of tomatoes into his basket, then pushed it a few feet farther along the low row of plants. He paused to wipe sweat from his face, being careful not to get insecticide in his eyes, and considered the import of his reasoning. So now I think of a ladder as a risk, he thought; of a hundred pounds of oranges as a great burden. Sweet Mother of God, I am thinking like an old man. He felt a rush of anger, followed almost instantly by confusion because he could not say what, exactly, was making him so furious. Of course, simply being here in this field, breaking your back under a broiling sun, was sufficient reason for feeling bitter. But there was something else to this, something that had been creeping up on him for the last few days, something beyond the natural bitterness of a life of hard labor. He could not define it, but he had gotten to know very well what it felt like. Like large, sharp teeth. Like the teeth on the huge black dogs the chiefs brought with them to the fields whenever they feared trouble. Teeth like those, ripping deep in the hollows of his chest.
“Get yo’ ass to work, goddammit!” Gene, the worst-tempered of the crew chiefs, had spotted him gazing dumbly into space. “Ain’t no moffuggin’ pignick!”
Although Julio did not know much English, “goddam” and “moffugger” he had come to understand quite well. One did not need to know English in order to comprehend Gene’s commands. Goddam you, negrito, he thought as he resumed picking. Goddam all of this. He wished he were back in the groves, snakes or no snakes. In the groves you had shade — and so what if the air in an orange grove could get so thick and heavy it was hard work just to draw breath? At least you could work standing up, even if it was on a goddam ladder. In the fields you worked in the open sun, sweating like a mule, crawling down the rows on your knees, your back bent and your spine cracking, breathing dust and insecticide fumes. The bug spray burned and stained your skin, and you carried the smell of it everywhere, even after you washed.
To hell with the risk on the ladders, Julio thought, and with the hundred-pound weight of the orange boxes. The groves were better than this. A man might have the bad fortune to have to work hard all his life, yes, but not on his knees. No man was meant to work on his knees.
Well . . . a priest maybe, he thought, and tried to laugh.
His first three weeks in this country had been spent in an enormous orange grove where he had arrived crammed into the back of a truck with sixteen other men. The truck journey had originated somewhere a few miles north of the Rio Grande and west of Langtry, Texas. They had followed a coyote, a smuggler, across the river in the middle of a moonless night, splashing and falling and choking on their pounding hearts with the fear of being captured by la migra, the American border patrol. They had walked and walked, shivering in the desert wind, their clothes soaked and stinking with river mud. Then, just before sunrise, the truck had found them as planned. They were ordered into the back of it and a rolling door was yanked down behind them and locked. Two days later, ravenous (they’d had plenty of water in the truck but no food) and reeking of the piss they’d had to sleep in after several of the waste cans had spilled or overflowed, they arrived in Florida (so lovely a name, florida: full of flowers), a world apart from the arid flatlands and barren mountains of his homeland in Coahuila. When Julio stumbled out of the truck and saw the endless rows of orange trees, he thought he had come to the garden of God.
They had been housed in decrepit trailer homes set in a clearing in the grove, been fed from a mobile kitchen — a camper-backed pickup truck that came twice a day with its rations of beans and rice, tasteless white bread, bags of corn chips — and worked every day from first light until dusk. They got paid every night — according to the number of boxes they had filled with fruit — and even after the bosses had deducted from his wages their expenses for housing and feeding him, Julio was left with more money than he had ever earned for a week’s work back home. He allowed himself a few dollars every week for beer and candy bars, and for gambling a little in card games, and the rest he kept in a tight little roll held with a rubber band and tucked in his underpants. Every night he fell asleep with his hand cupping the roll protectively.
Every day, as he went about his work — scaling a ladder set against a tree, plucking oranges and dropping them into the bag slung over his shoulder, descending the ladder and emptying the bag into a fieldbox, remounting the ladder — every day he daydreamed of the glorious return he would make to his village in Coahuila. (He had promised his wife he would return in the spring, no later than mid-summer — and perhaps he would, if he did not decide to stay here a while longer and accumulate even more money. A promise to a wife was a sacred thing, yes, but of course always vulnerable to the unpredictable circumstances of a man’s life, and who could predict for certain whether a man would be satisfied with the amount he had saved by the summer or wish to add a little more to it?) Whenever he finally did go back home, his roll of money would be as fat and heavy as an avocado. He would be hailed as a rich man, much respected, his family proud and widely envied. Such, at any rate, was the character of his dream.
But then one night, before he had been in the grove a month, the authorities showed up. Trucks and cars with blue lights flashing on their roofs. Lights everywhere — headlights, spotlights, flashlights. Loudspeakers blaring in Spanish: the police, la migra, federales of all kinds, everybody is under arrest, don’t try to run away or you will have worse trouble. Julio would not have run, would have surrendered himself and his dream on the spot, so stricken with fear and despair was he, but everybody else was running and so, infected with panic, he had run, too. He ran straight to a pickup truck in which a crew chief named Walt was driving away even as several other men clambered into its bed. Julio had leaped aboard, and somehow — who could ever say how — they had escaped, five illegals and the gringo chief. All the others, it was assumed, had been caught.
By the following afternoon, he was picking cucumbers in a field just outside of a town called Immokalee, much farther south. In town he had rented a cot and a locker in a place named The Ross Hotel, a name suggesting amenities far beyond the realities of that dimly lighted, one-time warehouse of unpainted concrete block. The single, large room was simply a dormitory for transient laborers, a place even more malodorous than the truck in which Julio had ridden from Texas. Cockroaches skittered across the floor, and the walls were covered with crude sexual drawings and scrawlings in English and Spanish. “Put bars over the windows of this place,” Julio had heard someone say, “and it could pass for a well-furnished jail in Sonora.”
He had now been living in The Ross for nearly two months. Every morning before sunrise he would walk to the Farmers Market and board a clattering bus jammed with several dozen men and they would be driven out to some field or other to pick produce under the supervision of a handful of crew chiefs.
Today, as they had been for the past two weeks, Julio’s crew was working in a tomato field. And today, as he had been too often lately, Julio was painfully hung over. In truth, this morning’s bad head was one of the worst of his life. He had not even made it back to The Ross last night. After staggering out of The Green Rose cantina at closing time in the singing company of his friends, Francisco and Diego, he had bid them goodnight and headed toward The Ross. But somehow he ended up sleeping in the palmetto thickets alongside the main highway.
He had awakened with the first light of morning jabbing into his eyes, a head like a rotten watermelon. Lying on his side, damp with dew, he was staring into the pink eyes and long, whiskered snout of a curious possum standing two feet from his face. The ugly creature scurried into the bushes at Julio’s startled groan. Through torturous effort he got to his feet, repulsed by the smell of himself and the rancid taste of his tongue. A few minutes later he was trudging toward the fields, keeping to the shoulder of the road, when a passing truck stopped for him. The driver was a happy Chicano who spoke bad Spanish but was glad to drive Julio directly to the fields where his crew had already been at work for two hours. At first, the crew chief, Gene, a bad-humored black man with whom Julio had never gotten along, was not going to let him work. He berated Julio for a drunkard who had another think coming if he thought he could just show up any old time he wanted and be allowed to go to work. Finally, after cursing at him for nearly five minutes, he relented; the day’s order was for fully ripe tomatoes, and Gene needed every picker he could get. “Get yo’ sorry ass inta the row over by Big Momma P.” Julio snatched up an empty basket and hurried into the field.
The moment he bent to work he knew the day was going to be a bad one. Although it was not yet mid-morning, the sun was already fierce and pressing hard into his back and scalp. Because he had not returned to The Ross before coming to the fields, he had not gotten his cap — bright blue with “KC” stitched across its front in white letters — and would therefore have to work bareheaded. He did have a red bandana in his pocket, and though he was sorely tempted to wear it over his head and tied under his chin, he didn’t do it. That was the way the field women wore them. He simply rolled it and tied it around his head as a sweatband.
Every time a picker filled a basket with tomatoes, he carried it back to the end of the row to have the load inspected by a checker. If the checker approved the load, he gave the picker a ticket bearing a cash value equivalent to wages. At the end of the day the picker traded his tickets for their total worth in cash, his day’s pay. Today each ticket was worth thirty-five cents. Once the checker okayed the load, he called for a toter — a carrier — to take the basket of tomatoes and deposit it in a truck.
Last week the call had been for green tomatoes, the hardiest kind and hence the easiest to pick and the simplest sort of load to check. The pickers had been able to work fast, and the checkers hardly glanced at the loads before issuing tickets for them. The toters had dumped the greens into the trucks as casually as baseballs.
All this week, however, the order was for red ripes, and so the work was naturally going a lot more slowly. The pickers had to be mindful to pick only ripe fruit, and to handle it gently. The checkers had to inspect the loads more closely to ensure that nobody was trying to get by with hiding greens and pinks under a top layer of reds, a practice not unknown among pickers trying to fill baskets as fast — and as easily — as they could. The toters, of course, had to be careful not to bruise the ripe tomatoes when they loaded them on the trucks. But the crew chiefs remained under pressure from the growers to keep the process moving as rapidly as possible, and they stalked relentlessly from one end of the field to the other, cursing, commanding everybody to work faster, goddammit, work harder. The call for red ripes always put everyone in a meaner temper than usual.
Julio was gagging on insecticide fumes, but he fought down the impulse to be sick and forced himself to concentrate on his work. The bugs had been particularly bad this season and the grower had been having the field sprayed every day. The plant leaves and the fruit gleamed with the oily black poison. Before Julio had filled his first basket of the day his hands were encrusted with bug spray. Long before the end of the day his arms would be smeared to the elbows; the seat and thighs of his pants — where he continually wiped his hands — would be stained even darker than they already were.
The air was full of dust as well as the stink of insecticide, and as the smear of crushed, discarded tomatoes grew along the rows, so did the swarms of huge green flies attracted by them. A worker who was not careful in breathing through his mouth could find himself suddenly choking on one.
Julio hurt all over. Every heartbeat thumped against the top of his skull. His eyes felt too large for their sockets. The insecticide seared the open cuts on his hands. Sweat seeped out from under his headband and rolled into his eyes, and when he wiped it away with the back of his hand, his eyelids were left burning. His tongue was an oil-caked rag.
A hundred yards away, set on a crate in the center of the field, was a fifty-gallon drum of water covered with a wooden board. Throughout the day, workers would go to the drum and dip water with a pint-sized can attached to the drum with a wire. No worker ever drank fast enough to escape the crew chief’s angry orders to quit goofing off and get back to work.
Despite his present agony, however, Julio would not go for water, not yet. He had to earn that first drink of the day. It was a game he played with himself. The game had but one rule — the only rule out here not imposed on him by the chiefs: he could not have a drink until he had worked his way past at least one of the pickers in another row. He had imposed this rule on himself on his first day in the fields, when he noted that many of the other pickers were obvious borrachones, habitual drunkards barely able to make it through a full day of picking; ruined men struggling to earn the money for the coming night’s bottles. If you cannot surpass men such as these, he had thought as he glanced at the wretches around him, then you should rip off your face in shame. Most of these drunks were white gringos who knew so little about picking produce it was evident they had descended from a better world; they had fallen to the fields, while most of the black and latino fieldhands had been in them all their lives.
Today, one of them was working in the row to the left of Julio: a bloody-eyed, green-toothed drunk in ragged dungarees and a filthy plaid shirt. He knew what Julio was trying to do. Every now and then he would look back at Julio at the same moment that Julio would look over at him, and both of them would try to work a little faster. The gringo was only about eight feet ahead of him, and Julio was slowly gaining ground.
You will pass him soon enough, Julio thought, so do not think about the water, not yet. He could not recall a time in his life when he had desired water as desperately as he did right now. The thought of water screamed in his head. When the gringo abruptly broke from his row and went to gulp a can full of water from the drum, Julio gained another three feet on him. Now Julio hated the gringo, hated him for having enjoyed the unthinkable pleasure of a cool drink of water while he, Julio, who struggled by rules of honor, was dying of thirst. His imagination smoldered with wrathful fancies. He could see the gringo reel and drop dead, and the vision thrilled him. He saw himself quickly picking his way past the corpse and then dashing to the water drum.
In the row to Julio’s right worked Big Momma Patterson, an enormous black woman wearing a wide straw hat, knee pads, and canvas gloves. She had been ten yards ahead of Julio when he’d started to work, had since increased the distance to more than a dozen yards. She was the best picker in the field today, one of the few who could do this work wearing gloves. The only picker better than Big Momma Patterson was Sammy Bowlegs, who was at the moment in jail for having set fire to a woman’s hair and then dousing the flames with whiskey.
Julio’s hands and knees were now beginning to achieve their regular rhythm, and as his picking action got smoother, his pace picked up even more. His hands darted in and out of the vines, grasping the tomatoes against his palm, snapping them free with a twist of the wrist and a crook of the index finger, dropping the fruit gently into the basket, pushing the basket forward, stepping up behind it on his knees. Over and over. Every time he filled a basket, he stood up, feeling pain grind into his back and bite into his knees, then hoisted the basket up to his hip and carried it to the checker.
He normally carried the basket on his shoulder, but the first time he filled a basket this morning and tried to swing it up on his shoulder, he lost his balance and just barely managed to drop the basket right-side-up before his feet tangled in the vines and he fell. The gringo picker laughed and said something which Julio didn’t understand but took to be an insult, and he nearly strangled on the restraint required to keep from jumping on the son of a whore and beating him to death. Big Momma Patterson looked back at him and smiled and shook her head reprovingly. Gene came stomping down the row, swearing at him for his clumsiness. Julio gathered the few tomatoes that had spilled, then jerked the basket up onto his hip and lugged it off to get his first ticket of the day, ignoring Gene’s ranting with the same dedicated indifference he gave to the flies raging around his head. As soon as the checker gave him his ticket, he grabbed up an empty basket and went back to his row.
While working on his third basket, he paused, leaned low over the vines and vomited quietly. Then, feeling dizzy and gutted, but certainly better, he wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. Well, he thought, that’s done.
He passed the gringo while filling his fifth basket, went to the water barrel and drank like a drowning man.
Its little bell tinkling brightly, the lunch wagon came down the road and parked in the shade of a stand of cajeput trees. The owner and driver of the wagon was an American named Harold. He sweat constantly and had blue teeth. The wagon’s wide serving window was attended by Harold’s chubby teenage daughter, a sullen, dead-eyed girl with a face eaten by acne. The wagon came out to the fields every day. Harold accepted cash or tickets for his goods, the entire range of which consisted of hot pork sausage sandwiches, cold cheese sandwiches, corn chips, unchilled cans of soda pop, moon pies, Marlboro cigarettes, and candy bars.
Several of the crew chiefs’ whistles shrilled nearly simultaneously. “Eat!” Gene hollered at the pickers in his crew. The workers swarmed out of the fields to form a couple of ragged lines at the lunch wagon window.
Julio was not at all hungry. He was not even sure his stomach would accept any food. But he knew he had to try to eat something; he would need the energy this afternoon. He was one of the first to reach the serving window. He fought down a swell of nausea as he waded through the heavy smell of hot pork grease, and he paid five tickets — one dollar and seventy-five cents — for a cheese sandwich and a can of Dr. Pepper.
He crossed the road and found a comfortable spot of ground to sit on under the shade of a cajeput. He stared morosely at his lunch. Five tickets. He had seven still left in his pocket. The dozen baskets he had so far picked today were the fewest he had ever picked in one morning, fewer even than on the morning before yesterday, when he had not come out of his drunken sleep until nearly nine o’clock and had not reached the fields till a half-hour later. If he did not do better this afternoon. . . . But of course he would do better. Didn’t he always? By the afternoon he had food in his belly and the return of his strength, and the afternoons were longer, so he could pick more baskets.
But there was no denying the fact of his great tiredness. He had never in his life felt as weary as he was feeling right now. He did not understand it. This was not the first time he had worked in the sun while his head did penance for the tequila sins of the night before. It was just the worst time. He wondered if he would be able to work all the way through the afternoon without dropping from exhaustion. And then he realized it was the first time in his life he had ever wondered such a thing.
The cheese sandwich lacked substance and tasted mainly of oily mayonnaise on the verge of turning rancid, but he forced himself to chew it, swallow it, keep it down. He saw Esteban de la Madrid standing in one of the lunch wagon lines, and his stomach tightened in anger. The seven tickets in his pocket, plus about one dollar in change, represented all the money Julio had in the world, and the reason for that sad fact was an unfortunate incident of the Sunday just past; but the cause of that unfortunate incident — and thus the true cause of Julio’s present impoverishment — was Esteban de la Madrid.
“Stop for him, he’s a mejicano!” Esteban shouted as Diego’s rusty, smoke-belching Dodge rumbled past a tall hitchhiker dressed in dungaree. “Give the poor fellow a ride, hombre. Don’t be a bastard.”
It was late in the afternoon. They were on State Road 82, an isolated two-lane blacktop flanked by cattle pastures and stands of slash pine, returning to Immokale from a wonderful day in Fort Myers. They had been to a movie and shopping in the stores and gone to a Burger King and into several bars. Esteban was in the front seat with Diego, both of them wearing straw hats they had purchased in Edison Mall. Julio was in the back with Francisco, who was not feeling too well. Francisco’s eyes were black-and-red and both swollen nearly shut; his lips were puffed and purple and his nose was freshly broken. All of these disfigurements had come to him in an alley behind a Fowler Avenue bar, committed by a shrimp boat worker twice his age who had disputed the legality of a shot by which Francisco sank the eight-ball to win yet another game from him at the pool table.
“It is a technique much admired in Ensenada,” Francisco said in response to the shrimper’s protest. “I will accept another Budweiser as my prize.” Although he had learned his English in bordertown bars from Tijuana to Juarez, Francisco spoke the language better than Diego, who had been born and raised in Colorado and had learned both English and Spanish in childhood. Unfortunately, as Diego was often reminded by his friends, he had not learned either language very well, and his pronunciations in either were often mysterious, his syntax a tangle of confusion. It was said, perhaps unkindly, that no matter which language Diego used to call his dog, the poor, perplexed animal would simply stare at him from the distance and scratch its head.
“Well, we ain’t in no fuckin’ Ensenada,” the old shrimper said. “Illegal shot. You lose. Make mine a goddam Michelob.”
Cockily, Francisco winked at his friends at the bar and said, “Maybe you wish to resolve this disagreement outside, eh old fellow? Under the eyes of God?”
“Fuckin’ A John square,” the shrimper said, heading for the back door.
And now Francisco was not feeling so well.
Diego brought the Dodge to a stop and the hitchhiker came running. “Listen, you,” Diego said to Esteban, “maybe I should get rid of this car, eh? Get a bus, maybe? To pick up all the damn people you ask always that I pick up?”
“Your kindness has put a smile on St. Peter’s face,” Esteban said. “You are ten feet closer to heaven.”
The hitchhiker was breathing heavily when he got to the car. Julio moved over, permitting him to have the seat by the door. “Thank you very much, compañeros,” the man said as Diego put the car back in motion. He was hatless and his hair was cropped short, like a soldier’s. His jeans and jacket still held the smell of new denim. He wore low-cut brown shoes, cheap and dusty but new-looking, and a beautiful gold watch whose stretch band was slightly too large for his wrist. He said his name was Eduardo. Esteban introduced him all around.
In answer to Esteban’s questions, the man said he lived and worked in Fort Myers, that he was a baker’s helper, that he was going to Immokalee to visit a girlfriend. He asked about Francisco’s savaged face and laughed together with everyone else — except Francisco, who glared at them all through the red slits of his swollen eyes — when Esteban told the story of the fight. He had a small, dark tattoo between his thumb and first finger of his left hand — a design something like an arrowhead — and when he noticed Julio’s silent interest in it, he casually covered his left hand with his right. His Spanish was much like Francisco’s, a border region sing-song. He was, he told them, originally from Mexicali.
He asked a lot of questions about their work. Was the pay for pickers good at this time of year? Did they get paid every day, as he had heard? They must be doing very well to have a car and go to Fort Myers for a whole Sunday to enjoy the stores and bars. Did they think he could get work in the fields? He missed his girlfriend and wanted to live closer to her.
“Hey, amigo, any poor chingado can work in the fields,” Esteban said. “All you need is the strength of a burro and the same amount of intelligence. But to give up a job in a nice, clean bakery to work in the fields, ay mamá, that is too stupid to think of, even for love.”
“But you do get paid every day?” the man asked.
“There is that to be said for fieldwork, yes. Good pickers like us always have money in our pockets, while guys like Diego here must wait for Fridays to get their money.”
“Where you been, hombre,” Diego asked, “you don’t know these things?”
The man leaned over a little to look around Esteban and through the windshield, then turned and looked through the rear window. Julio looked, too, his curiosity aroused. There was no other traffic in sight in either direction.
“I’ve been away,” the man said. From under his jacket he drew a small, chrome-plated automatic pistol. “Stop the car,” he commanded. “Pull off the road.”
“What?” Diego said. He looked in the rearview mirror and the man waggled the gun up where he could see it. “Ay, dios,” he said tiredly. He slowed the car, eased off onto the shoulder of the road, and shut off the engine.
“Who told you to cut the motor, pendejo?” the man asked.
“Nobody, I don’t know — nobody,” Diego said. “I just do it always because the motor gets too hot and sometimes the radiator cap blows off and you see, you see right there on the front of the hood where there is like a bubble on it, there is where the cap always hits when it blows off the radiator and you should see what —”
“Shut up!” the man ordered. He was holding the gun low, out of the sight of anyone who might drive by, but pointed vaguely in Julio’s direction. “I don’t want to shoot anybody,” he said, “but I have done so before. If any of you should be so damned foolish as to try anything brave, well. . . .” He shrugged, staring intently at Julio, who abruptly became aware that he was glowering at the bandit and wondering if a bullet from such a small gun would hurt very much.
“Do you understand?” the bandit asked Julio, pointing the gun at his face. The black muzzle suddenly seemed enormous.
Julio nodded. His tongue tasted of copper. Beside him, Francisco had gone pale under his bruises.
“Very good,” the bandit said. “Now, get all your money out of your pockets and drop it on the front seat, between those two,” he said, indicating Diego and Esteban. “All of you, now.”
Julio worked his hand around in his pockets and extracted three dollar bills and some coins and dropped it all into the front seat. Francisco, too, leaned over the back of the front seat, groaning with the pain of the effort, and deposited his money between Diego and Esteban, who were shifting about, digging out their own money.
“For the love of God,” Esteban said plaintively. “Why are you doing this to us? We are not rich. We are mejicanos, the same as you. If you must rob somebody, why don’t you go and rob the gringos. They have all the money. That is what I would do.”
The bandit laughed without humor. “Sure, sure. Of course you would. Pancho Villa — that’s who you are. Now, all of you, pull your pockets out completely.” He leaned forward and looked down into the front seat, checking Diego’s and Esteban’s pockets. He smiled and nodded. Francisco’s pockets, too, now hung limply from his pants like white flags of defeat.
Julio had not turned his pockets out. The bandit stared at him and raised his eyebrows.
“That’s all of it,” Julio said. “Truly.”
“Oh, truly,” the bandit said, smiling. “Well, please forgive my lack of trust, amigo, but I insist.”
Julio stared hard at the bandit, flicked a glance at the pistol, locked eyes with the man again. If he had been asked at that moment what was going through his mind, he could not have said, but the bandit saw something in his eyes that made him lose his smile and draw back the hammer on the little gun. Julio had never heard that sound except in the movies, had never imagined how differently it could strike the ears in the world of flesh and breath. Even on this little pistol, pointed at him from a distance of less than two feet, it was a sound to chill his skin.
“Hey, amigo,” the bandit said softly, almost sadly.
A van with dark-tinted windows went whooshing past.
Julio pulled his pockets inside-out and the rest of his money fell to the floor. Seventy-nine dollars. The bandit chuckled delightedly and began scooping up the money with his free hand. “Truly,” he said, looking at Julio and laughing. “Truly.” Ten of those dollars had been won the night before at the cockfights, the rest represented what was left of the money he had saved since arriving in Florida. Julio watched the bills disappear in the bandit’s jacket.
“Jesus Christ, Julio,” Francisco said, his slitted eyes widening the little they could. “You have been robbing banks.”
“That was all the money I had,” Esteban whined. “Twelve little dollars.” He gave Julio a look of reproval. “I was not so rich like some in this car. Listen, hombre, leave us some little bit of money, eh? To buy a beer and a taco tonight?”
“Is this one always so stupid?” the bandit asked nobody in particular, nodding toward Esteban as he gathered money.
“Always,” Diego said. “But listen, can you not leave us with some money? I have a wife, hombre, I have children, I —”
“Silence!” the bandit commanded, waving the pistol at him sharply before aiming it back at Julio. Diego put up his shaking hands like a movie robbery victim, nodding repeatedly.
“Put those hands down, stupid! Sweet Jesus! You fools think you are the only people with troubles? If I told you my troubles we would all drown when your tears filled this car. And speaking of this car, I want you all to get out of it, right now.”
“My car?” Diego said. “You are not going to steal my car?” He sounded on the brink of weeping. He had recently paid ninety-six dollars for this car, having saved the money from overtime pay during the past few months at his job as an auto mechanic. Accumulating such an amount had not been easy; almost every penny he earned went toward the support of a formidable wife and seven ravenous children.
“Steal your car?” the bandit said, “Are you trying to insult me, pendejo? I never steal such trash as this.”
Diego appeared both relieved and injured.
“When I steal a car,” the bandit said, “I steal something my sainted mother would not die of shame to see me driving. No, hombre, I am not going to steal your stinking car. But I am going to borrow the flea-ridden thing,” the bandit said, “and only because it is now almost dark enough so that no one will recognize me as I drive this rolling disease. Leave the keys where they are and get out — everybody, now. Start walking back in the direction we were coming from. Move!”
They got out and began walking. When they had gone about ten yards, they heard the motor grinding as the bandit tried to start the Dodge. They could hear him swearing at the recalcitrant engine. Finally the motor clattered to life, and they stopped and turned to look. The transmission gears shrieked. The car lurched onto the highway and began a ponderous acceleration, pouring thick clouds of smoke. Its taillights became dimmer through the trailing haze as it faded down the road.
It was a long walk back to town. None of them mentioned the incident. They hardly spoke at all. Except for Diego, the Chicano, the native citizen of the U.S., they all ducked down in roadside ditches or ran and hid in the pines every time a pair of headlights came flashing down the highway. One never knew when those headlights belonged to la migra.
Diego walked with his arm out and his thumb up. But there was hardly any traffic on this Sunday evening and none of it stopped for him, so he had to walk all the way back with the others — a distance of more than twenty miles. “Why couldn’t the sonofabitch have waited until we were closer to town before he robbed us? Chingado!” He was enraged by every car or truck that came out of the darkness and flashed by without even slowing down.
“God damn them! Bastards! Sonofabitches! No good sons of whores! Do they think I am going to rob them, the lousy no-good bastards! GOD DAMN THEM!”
Every time he caught sight of Esteban he swore at him, too, only more loudly and with greater heat and imagination. Esteban was careful to keep a good distance from Diego. He was careful not to get too close to any of them, for it did not require superior intuition to sense that nobody was feeling very cordial toward him at this time. Much later he would argue that he was being made a victim of unfairness, but not now. For one of the few times in his life, he was exercising prudence and keeping silent, even in the face of Francisco’s accusation: “It’s all your fault, you stupid sonofabitch! We ought to hang you from one of these trees.” Which were the only words Francisco spoke to him on the entire walk back to town.
The sky was turning gray when they reached town. Esteban quickly faded into the shadows of a side street and vanished. When they turned a corner at Third Avenue, they saw the Dodge parked in front of the public library. Diego whooped with joy and jogged to the car. By the time Julio and Francisco got there, Diego was no longer looking pleased. He was staring in open-mouthed shock at the freshly-crumpled left front fender. “Look,” he said, pointing a quivering finger at the damage. “Just look at what he did. The bastard stole my car and could not drive it twenty miles without wrecking it. That hijo de la chingada should be in prison! Look! Look how he has ruined my car!”
Even as tired and down-spirited as he was, Julio could not help thinking that now the left fender more closely resembled the one on the right, but he did not think this a proper moment to mention it to Diego.
Then Diego discovered the parking ticket under the windshield wiper. He howled and snatched it off the car. It cited him for improper parking. The car was positioned in front of a fire hydrant.
Diego shook like a man suffering from a severe nervous disorder. He stamped his feet. He turned in small circles and whimpered like an overwrought dog. He planted his feet far apart and shook the ticket at the sky, as though demanding an explanation from God Himself.
“What kind of sonofabitch —” he began, then started choking on his own spit and bile and outrage and fell into a harsh fit of coughing for a minute or two before he could regain his breath. Julio, meanwhile, was observing this whole display with a degree of awe and apprehension. He had heard of persons who had died in the grip of such fits of rage. A blood vessel had burst in their heads or something like that.
“What sort of sonofabitch,” Diego resumed, once again brandishing the ticket toward heaven, “would give a man a parking ticket in the middle of the fucking night! Oooooh, God! What bastards! What injustice! WHERE ARE YOU, GOD? What injustice this stinking world is full of!”
During this time, the town had slowly been coming to life all around them. Several cars and pickup trucks rolled past, their occupants staring at them with curiosity.
“Hey, Diego, you maybe better go home now,” Julio said. “Before another policeman comes by and gives you another ticket.”
Diego stared at him as though he had grown a second head.
“I mean, your car is still parked there, amigo.”
Diego whirled and got into the car and slammed the driver’s door shut with such force the window shattered and showered him with glass. He pounded on the steering wheel with his fist and his curses rang through the streets. The engine ground and sputtered, and he swore at it until at last it caught and roared and poured black smoke from its exhaust pipes. He raced the engine up so high it seemed about to explode, then yanked the car into gear and the tires screamed as the Dodge shot into the street and veered wildly right and left before at last slowing down and straightening out.
Diego drove away in the rattling Dodge, trailing billows of oily smoke, heading home to a wife and seven children who would shriek and squall the whole while he got ready to go to work, sleepless and empty of pockets.
“At least the thief left his keys in the car,” Francisco observed as he and Julio made their way to the Farmers Market to wait for the field buses.
“That’s right,” Julio said. “Diego actually has much to be thankful for, doesn’t he?”
Francisco started to laugh, then winced and moaned with the pain the act caused to his battered face.
Esteban had been to blame for the robbery because he had been the one to make Diego stop for the hitchhiker. It was as simple as that. Diego had since made it quite clear that he did not want to see Esteban again for the next eighty years. “If I do,” he had told Julio, “I am going to drive over him with my car until the tires go flat.” Francisco — whose face looked even worse a couple of days later than it had on Sunday — would tremble with fury at the mention of Esteban’s name. “He will have no need of pockets for a while,” he said, “because every day I am going to take from him every nickel he earns, until I have regained the nine dollars I lost.” Julio had not spoken to Esteban since the robbery, either. Esteban de la Madrid had been responsible for the whole thing. It was as simple as that.
Except that now, chewing the last of his awful sandwich and drinking the final swallows of the warm Dr. Pepper, he knew it was not at all as simple as that. It was no simpler than giving a name to the vague but implacable anger he had been feeling in the past few days. An anger drawing ever closer to dread — a dread like teeth gnawing around his heart.
He had been brooding about the robbery since it had occurred, and he knew his friends thought his depression was due to having lost so much money to the bandit. That was, of course, part of it. He had, after all, been robbed of his entire savings. But the real reason for his continuing despair over the robbery went much deeper than the loss of his money. The terrible thing about it all, he kept telling himself again and again, was that he had done nothing to try to stop it from happening to him.
Why hadn’t he tried to take the gun away from him? Why? The fellow had been laughing and enjoying himself — especially after Julio had finally emptied his pockets. The bandit had become loose with his attention, scooping up money from the floor, talking to Diego about the damned car. His guard had been very loose. He had been no more than arm’s length from him. I could have grabbed the gun, Julio thought. I could have grabbed it and tried to wrestle it away. The bandit had not appeared to be very strong.
So why didn’t he try it, eh? Had he perhaps been afraid? Was that it?
Well, of course he had been afraid. Certainly he had. The fellow had held a gun, god damn it. Show him the man who was not afraid of a gun and he would show you a fool.
And why would such a man be a fool?
Why? The question is beyond foolish. Because a gun can kill you, that’s why. Kill you fast and easy.
Julio felt the teeth tearing, ripping through him.
Kill me? Kill me? Sweet Mother of God, is that what he had been afraid of? Of being killed? Of being killed fast and easy?
It made him laugh to think about it, and the laughter burned in his eyes.
James Carlos Blake