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Fredi & Jake, a great friendship
Fredi & Jake, a great friendship
Timothy L Rodriguez
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Yes - full manuscript is available


Fredi & Jake (working title) is a story of two young men—one Puerto Rican (Fredi) and the other Mexican (Jake)—who are caught up in the migrant flow, moving across the land from one crop to the next. The story opens in Homestead, Fla. where the tomato crop is about to be harvested. Both men work for a typical but nevertheless despicable crew leader named Cano. Fredi meets Jake when he rescues him from a barroom brawl. Fighting is a way of life; just ask Fredi who beats up his roommate, Angel, because Angel and his cronies ate Fredi’s pinto bean lunch. The trouble between Fredi and Angel escalates, but Cano cannot afford to lose Fredi because he is an excellent picker. Those in his crew earn 32 cents per 30 pound bucket of tomatoes. Within a few weeks union leaders come into the fields and organize a strike, seeking 45 cents a bucket. All the crew leaders but Cano observe the strike. Cano takes his people into a secluded field to pick. Strikers descend upon them. Cano flees. That night Fredi and Angel have it out once and for all. Angel jumps Fredi in a dark stairwell. He wields a screw driver for a weapon. As the two skirmish, Jake cracks a baseball against Angel’s skull. The pair flee, lest Jake, the illegal one, encounter the cops. Now the two go against the migrant flow and land in the Indian River area, ready to pick the last of the grapefruit crop. They stay at the Charlton Arms, a ramshackle roadhouse run by a woman named Mabel, who has been Fredi’s lover for as long as he has been in the flow. The day after their arrival, the two learn that the crews have suspending picking and won’t start up for a week. To earn money they get into the cat-killing business. It’s an old ploy—kill a cat, skin it and cut off his feet. The buyers are blacks who think it is either coon; without feet they can’t tell the difference. They’ll pay up to $40. Unfortunately, one night after killing two, Fredi goes home while Jake stays behind to catch one more with a dead fish as bait. What he snares instead is a skunk which bites him. The bite sickens Jake. Because he passes in and out of consciousness and runs a high fever, Fredi and Mabel think he may have contracted rabies. But Fredi insists that they keep him in the boarding house. Going to a hospital would only get him deported, assuming he lives. Thanks to Mabel, he lives. Fredi and Jake hook up with a black crew and have steady work until Fredi and one of the blacks go to a gambling house where Fredi takes everyone down in an all night game of hi-lo. With thousands in his pocket, Fredi believes he is on his way to his dream—a home, not one that moves, a house that stays put. The black community is outraged at how a Latino suckered its people. A man named Crowe, a man with a dangerous posse, challenges Fredi. He loses big. And can’t cover his loses. If he doesn’t, Crowe and company will kill him. Now they flee to the middle of the state, a farm outside DeLand, where Jake’s father and the people from his village work, cutting ferns. The two stay in a trailer in the woods. Across the way is a redneck couple, also cutters. The woman, Marie, is beautiful, blonde and white. Despite Jake’s warning, Fredi befriends her. A steady user of drink and pot, Dennis, her boyfriend, tries to undermine the entire clan but only succeeds in being demoted to the weed crew, which is no more than a sad collection of day laborers. One night Dennis is at his usual haunt, The Rebel Yell, when a black man enters, looking so fierce no one dares to confront him. The black says he’s looking for a "white Mexican.” Dennis is more than happy to tell him all about the new arrivals, Fredi and Jake. During the day fern cutters often move from one shaded bed to another, cutting only the most mature ferns. At lunch Dennis can’t find Marie where he left her. Enraged he goes home to drink and arm himself. A confrontation occurs, during which a drunken Dennis lets out that he has alerted Crowe’s posse to Fredi’s whereabouts. With the arrival of the police, Dennis is subdued. No one is harmed. Even so, Jake and Fredi are now in danger. The elders confer, agreeing to send Jake back to Mexico and Fredi to a safe place in Virginia. As the bad guys prowl the roads in search of the white Mexican, Jake’s father takes his son to Atlanta to catch a bus, while Fredi and Marie drive through the night, heading north, both praying Virginia will be a home, the last stop.

Left to Limbo

Fredi & Jake
A Great Friendship
By
Timothy L Rodriguez
© 2011
Part One

Left to Limbo
The young man scuffles along the roadside. Against the backdrop of treated fields, he is the perpendicular post that brings into reference just how far the fields stretch. He pays no attention to the crop that tomorrow will provide him an income. The man is far from town not because he is on a mission, much less un paseo, a walk. Only an hour ago he seriously believed he could escape, flee Homestead and its fields and hopefully leap the horizon. But he doesn’t have the legs to outpace the campo nor the funds to land anywhere else, and he doesn’t have the strain of uncommon sense that begs him to try. He has been up and down this road, any road, all roads, all too often to think one is any different from another. They all end in the same place, a field, an orchard, a farm, a factory, a dead end with no end. He wishes for a place that asks him to stop and stay, to live and learn how to belong. The latter would take some work, but he is not adverse to work, especially if it brings him to a claim in which he has a stake, to a place on which to land so often that it becomes home. As soon as he admits he has never had one and probably never will, he breaks into a run. Nearing town, he slows to a walk. He comes to a full stop some thirty yards from a man in a ditch. The solemnity of the man's placement of a funeral wreath of red, green and white stills him. When the man bends to a knee so does he. He makes a sign of the cross, smart as a salute. And while the man in the ditch says an act of contrition, the man above knows no such prayer. He merely bows as he has seen others do and says thanks, thanks to whomever it is that reclaims and reconnects the dead. The man in the ditch makes the sign. Upon standing he feels the tears streaking his cheeks but he is also conscious of another presence. He turns to see the man on the roadside rise from his genuflection, cross himself and move off quickly.
That night the young man on the roadside walks into Las Brisas, una discoteca owned by the crew leader, Cano. He knows no one, newly arrived for the tomato crop. He stations himself at the lower end of the L in the bar, a view that affords him a nearly complete sweep of the action. Of all the corners he has been in, the cinder one he backs into feels safe. It is where his brown-skinned mother positioned herself night after night in Belle Glade. It was her office. At the start of the night she pulled her cigar box from behind the bar and counted her chits, not from picking, from loving. She drank until her chits ran out and then started what she called her picking.
He orders a bottled beer; Cano has longnecks on discount. As he leans against the Mexican red wall, he takes a sip, letting it almost trickle. The Mexican music drives his eyes toward the dancing at the far end of the room. He scoffs at the florescent tape intended to outline the baile. Already groups and couples and singles stray far from the confines.
His gaze swings backward hoping to hit upon una guapa sola. No sooner has he begun the scan than he fast-forwards toward the bathroom. Three men in straw cowboy hats have cornered the man he saw in the roadside ditch. He shakes his head in amusement and takes a fast draft.
Seconds before the first punch, he is among them. From behind he quickly dispatches two cowboys with fierce blows to the bulge where the neck and back meet. One spouts blood, a projectile much like vomit. He tells himself to remember how deftly he wielded the pile-driver. The cowboys down, he delivers kicks to the stomach and face. A dropped knee to the one not gushing brings silence.
Meanwhile, the third cowboy is standing but only because he has been punched so many times he seems nailed to the wall. There is no life in the eyes, and the moment the pressure stops he slides down the wall.
The two left standing haven't drawn any attention to themselves. Fights happen so often no one pays more than a passing notice. They turn to each other. From a distance you may think they threaten each other.
”I am sorry for the one lost by the road.” He adds, ”I see you on--”
The other nods in acknowledgment and appreciation.
”A beer, can I buy you for, uh, for your loss?”
”No, it is upon me. I buy two,” and he points to the fallen cowboys as a gesture of admiration.
At the bar the man from the roadside asks what was the provocation.
”They are her brothers. They don't want a man from San Miguel de Aleman.”
He tsks and shakes his head knowingly. ”And still you put the wreath.”
The man from the ditch inhales his beer. ”Oh, no, senor. She is another. A rare flower.” He takes a drink and adds, ”One I did not get to smell. This one I smelled too much.”
The other slaps him on the back, guffawing.
The man from the ditch folds to his knees from the force. Upon straightening he says, ”I am called Jake.”
”Fredi.” He nods and holds his bottle up to toast. ”So where is Cano put you?”
It took Jake a moment to interpret Fredi's Spanish. ”With a group from Ohio. Pero hay solamente dos dormitorios. I have taken one for myself. My trunk is in it. And you?”
”I come today--well, last night. I am at an apartment house. Second floor. There is no furniture, no beds, but--”
”Did you see a trunk?”
”I see four.”
Jake shakes his head, saying, ”One is mine. We are together. What do you know of the others?”
”I pay no attention. The others comes and go.”
”Well, Fredi, if anything happens to you, I will come to help you, not go.”
Fredi tosses back his beer to hide his face.
*****
Fredi lunges through the side door of the brown van. He seizes Angel by the hair and shakes his head as if intent on snapping the neck. The big kettle Angel holds bounces and plops on the dusty ground with a thin ring. In a singularly fluid move Fredi heaves him out the wide opening. The pudgy Angel flops with a heavy grunt. Fredi kicks him, first with the right boot and then the left. He isn't particular about where he strikes, the black head, the brown shirt, the blue jeans, the fat ass, the soft gut. His curses strangling on wails, he retrieves the empty kettle and smashes it against Angel's head. The bean crusted spoon inside rattles.
”And my beans?” Fredi screams. ”Where are my beans? Where is my share, hijo de puta?”
Fredi straddles him and heaves the kettle. It pitches up against a picker some 20 yards away. Given a reprieve while Fredi catches his breath, Angel curls into a tight ball. The move reminds Fredi of a caterpillar that balls itself up when threatened. ”Peor que un bicho,” cries Fredi and kicks Angel with abandon. Not satisfied, he slams a knee onto his back. The groan Angel utters into the earth heats him. He delivers countless fists to the kidneys.
Fredi hesitates the moment there are shouts for order, and at that moment Angel spins and thrusts a knife. It creases Fredi's shoulder. He scrambles backward like an upside-down crab. Angel, his eyes dripping a watery red, lurches forward. On his third blind thrust, Fredi catches him square on the chin with his boot. Angel emits a faint cry as he tumbles backward. He doesn't relinquish the large knife.
Before the combatants reach their feet, a crowd is upon them. A hush settles as the crew leader steps among them. Fredi, ignorant of the stain spreading over his shoulder, breaks loose from the restraining arms. No one runs after him once they see his easy stride toward the kettle. He hurls it back and contains his smirk at the sight of men dancing to avoid it hitting them. He comes back into the circle, kicking the kettle toward the crew leader.
In English he says to the crew leader, ”Show me where is my bean? Me engañó de mis frijoles; he cheated me out of my beans.” He adds, “Engano de mi money. Show me where my ten dollar?”
A confused Cano looks to Angel and then back to Fredi. The shrug Angel gives Cano, as if to say he too is confused, enrages Fredi. He gets halfway to Angel before being checked. A darker stain pokes through the center of the first. ”Pendejo, I want my ten dollar?”
Friends of the warring parties explain to Cano what has happened; how for two consecutive days the others have eaten Fredi's share on the pretext that they could not find him at the lunch hour.
”We don't know where he is,” answers Angel, his half-closed eyes locked on Fredi's. ”He could be fucking a Pedro or a Juan in the brush. We don't--”
Angel never knew he didn't complete his thought. Cold water revives him but it takes more time than Cano is willing to allow. He pulls Junior and Rojelio by their shirts and hisses, ”Take your boy back to the van. You eat this other's beans and the police will be next.”
While the two friends of Angel drag him by the arms to the van, Cano says, ”Venga, pistolero” and crooks his finger at Fredi.
They walk off together. ”So where are you when the lunch comes?”
”No, don't do this, cabron? Don't take his side.”
”Fredi, Fredi, Fredi. What are you thinking? It is me, Cano. Your friend. Do not lose a friend, Fredi. It is a stupid thing.”
”Stupid is losing a ten dollar.”
Cano smiles sympathetically. ”Yes, you are right. You are stupid to trust a pig like Angel. He is a criminal.”
”Jefe, I don't--All I want is my beans or my ten dollar.”
Cano beckons him to walk farther from the pickers. He calls back angrily ordering the men back to work. ”Fredi, you are a big, strong man.” Much like Fredi, Cano alternate between Spanish and English. ”You are young and fast in temper, faster with the fists. But you cannot hurt my workers. I--”
”What does it matter with a criminal?”
”Only Angel is a criminal and you cannot hurt him because he has a weak mind. He is not like you and me. But I will see that you get your lunche this week. But I don't know. You saw how they carried him to the van. I just don't know. I may have to take him to the doctor and when the doctor asked how this happened, what can I say? What should I tell the police?”
”What police?”
”They may have questions, want to know your name.”
”Pues, diselo, jefe. Tell them how I got no fuckin' beans. No tengo miedo de la policia. I'm not afraid of the police, I am born here. I don't got to have fuckin' papers.”
Cano deliberately pats the bleeding shoulder, expecting a wince at the very least. ”Fredi, Fredi, chico, what am I to do with you?”
When Fredi registers no pain, Cano removes his hand and once lowered, secretly tries to rub the blood from his fingers.
Fredi shrugs in response. ”I want my beans” is all he musters.
”Of course,” says Cano, ”I will protect you--”
As crew leader, Cano is the ruling authority. He is truly all things to all people: banker, chauffeur, landlord, paymaster, postmaster, pimp, grocer, doctor, bootlegger. He is the lunchero whose lunch wagon sells a plate of beans for $2.50. He is tax collector and payday lender, the cantinas and discotecas owner. Higher than any of these is his position as protector, shielding his people from any other authority such as the police or immigration officials.
Outraged, Fredi hollers, ”Protect! What I need protect? I no need no--”
”I will see to it you get your beans. It will cause trouble, a lot of trouble. But your assault, your violence, your temper, your fists, they cause trouble, much trouble. But I will not let them get you. I will help...”
As Cano drones on, Fredi has the suspicions that he is somehow at fault. The way Cano talks suggests as much. But it is Angel who stole his money, he tells himself: That is what happened, isn't it?
”So we agree. We work together. We are a team, no? You and me, Fredi. Fredi and Cano, a team. Yes?”
At length he mutters, ”OK.”
”Bueno, bueno,” says Cano making a point of striking the cut shoulder. ”Pero, ahora tiene que caminar a la casa.”
”Walk home?” says an incredulous Fredi. ”What the fuck--”
”This is for the sake of the others, not you.”
At a loss as to what Cano means, he says, ”Fuck it. I don't want to ride with that asshole.” He whistles through pressed lips to call his friend, Jake. Together they tramp to the road to hitchhike.
******
The feud between Fredi and Angel began three days ago. It was a Sunday, a day upon which Saturday night collapsed. Many in the apartment had been drinking since mid-afternoon, and now twenty hours later there were bodies scattered everywhere. The only one standing was Angel. The first to quit and sleep through the night were Fredi and Jake. Of the two bedrooms in the apartment they claimed one exclusively for themselves. From time to time others questioned and probed but they backed down, having heard of the quick dispatch of the three cowboys. Their door closed and locked, the pair slept relatively undisturbed, accustom to outcries and polka music.
At breakfast a refreshed Fredi ate buttered bread and fruit, all the while swinging his long index finger in time with Angel's blaring polka. He nodded with his head toward the open door and hollered, ”How far the music go? A mile half, longer?”
Pushing himself away from the door jamb, a wild-eyed Angel staggered into his bedroom and turned down the music. Upon his return he brushed right up against Fredi who sat on the counter beside the refrigerator. The moment he felt contact Fredi shoved Angel back, saying, ”Man, you stink. Get away.”
Angel stumbled backwards and then forward until he gained a hold on the counter. He raised a finger and accented its slow wave with a conspiratorial nod. ”You listen to me, chico. You and me, hombre. I let you in on a deal.”
Angel sketched out his plan to provide lunch for everyone at pennies a day. The idea rested on everyone contributing ten dollars per week and with the ninety dollars buying food in bulk.
Jake knew his friend was lost simply by the way the eyes shifted from side to side. Jake was about the business of cracking two raw eggs into a coke. He drank in gulps. He gasped and shuddered. Upon straightening, he thumped his chest. He cleared his throat. Flashing a clean smile, he exclaimed to no one in particular, ”Now that is a breakfast. El desayuno para los campeones.” He looked back at Fredi who still awaited an answer. He scoffed. ”Are you serious? To this clown? Give my money to him? Look at him. He is a drunk. Es un hombre ruin. Que va?”
The look Angel returned shook Jake, for the hate shone so purely, completely and without guile. Jake whistled to break the tension. He had never seen such malice, especially one intensified by a face that could, if called upon, portray a true sense of friendliness and mirth.
At the whistle Angel turned back to Fredi, bearing down on him with his most congenial face. He was persuasive, vowing to do the cooking. He claimed to know many recipes. He declared that there would be no cleaning, no shopping, no bother. A slush fund of eighty dollars, what with Jake opting out, hypnotized Fredi. He envisioned cheeseburgers and French fries, with sugary cokes over crushed ice ... white onions and tart pickles and stout lettuce ... spicy mustard, rich mayo and thick catsup ... buns with seeds ... maybe fried onion rings, the breaded outer layer golden ... or those curly fries with the red pepper ....

******
Jake shakes a good laugh out of his head. He knows Fredi will dig into his jeans and remove a crumpled collection of bills. He has known him for three weeks but it may as well be three lifetimes, for Fredi does what Jake sometimes wishes he could do. Not always and not often. Emphasis on sometimes. But something turning in his past, some impartment from his family or bequest from the town of his father and his father and his father, works on him like a governor, not allowing him to ride an emotion like Fredi. Take anger, for example. From explosion to exhaustion it is all about intensity. Jake has seen Fredi attack a picker who entered his section of a row. There was no discussion. The assault was immediate and conclusive. And in the quiet aftermath there was no resentment, scarcely a memory of it.
Jake does not have the--he does not know what to call it. He likens it to jumping off a cliff into the pitch of night and believing you will land softly on your feet, not necessarily fearless of what is below but certainly heedless. Whatever it is, he knows he does not possess it and he is not always sure he really wants the capability.
He smiles to himself in thinking how the only time Fredi doesn't land on his feet is when he is kissed. That is something altogether different. For Fredi a kiss is nothing but memories, memories of love, endless and fatal at the same time. Wild notions of romance and passion, none of which he has ever experienced. They are made-up memories, substitute moments, daydreamy times but because he believes in them, they are real. Like Charlotta--they are always Anglo girls--whom he pulled from the Georgia surf at dusk and his kiss administered life, a life they shared until she succeeded in killing herself in the tormented sea.
The sight of Angel helping sort out the bills on the counter quells his smile. Jake knew this outcome the moment Angel mentioned a deal. It is the way Fredi is. The Fredi of today or tomorrow or a year ago or a year from now. The Fredi who is also known as Aflredo, who sometimes takes the surname of Downing as a convenience but generally defers to Rodriguez as a rule.
A last name has never meant much to him, as he is of no certain origin, half Puerto Rican. But in truth an impossible equation: Puerto Ricana + _____ = Fredi. A part missing, never to be known. Judging from his looks, Jake speculates a white American for a father. Fredi is taller than everyone else and so lean as to reveal how tightly drawn he is. His complexion is fair, lightly freckled along the high cheeks. His hair is sable black, combed straight back. The cut of his face narrows to a strong chin. The tight sideburns accentuate the impression.
Jake is the brother Fredi never had, now and then Jake is the father Fredi never had, and to his chagrin he is at times the mother Fredi never had. In the end, though, he reckons it is worth it, for Fredi is the brother he never had, Fredi is the friend he never had.
*******
Jake knew he shouldn't have smiled that Monday morning, he should have contained it, battered its side, because he knew what was going to happen. There they were with their seven roommates, all sitting sleepily on their red plastic buckets, waiting on Cano's van. All except Fredi. He was the harlequin who cavorted about and every so often stroking the top of the kettle that Angel hugged securely. It contained beans lolling in thick brown sauce spiced with onions. Atop the lid were packaged chilies and wrapped tortillas. Fredi was careful not to touch the foiled treats as he boogied around Angel, singing unintelligibly. He paused as if to quit his caper but suddenly swung back, draped a loose arm over Angel's hunched shoulder and proposed they eat now.
”Chingalo,” Angel said, nodding toward the van.
That day they worked in a vast field, one so expansive that it required a rotation of four flat beds, each with sixteen bins. The pickers would fill their thirty-pound buckets and run to the nearest truck to have the contents unloaded by a man straddling a bin. Assuming all the tomatoes were green, the picker received a chit worth thirty cents.
Altogether there were four groups stretched the length of a field that crossed to the horizon. It was by far the largest field Cano’s crew had seen. Its rows were endless, perfectly sculpted mounds, each swathed in gray plastic sheets, the tops of which were perforated to allow the chemical soil to breathe. It was truly manufactured land, having lost any sense of trees or vegetation; the earth cured to man's specifications. It was Jake who pointed out that there were no birds in the field or at its margins.
Under a cloudless blue dome, one crew after another scattered to pick los mas verde, los mas grande. The heat was in step with the morning. None complained although the old and the women blessed the occasional breeze. If you looked at them from a distance the campesinos shimmered as if immaterial.
Toward noon Fredi stopped picking long enough to scan the neighboring rows. With no sign of Angel or the others, he ran to the truck with a load. As it was being dumped, he hoisted himself onto the cab and hollered through a cupped hand. After a while, he desisted, totally winded. Pickers farther down the line were smaller than his raised thumbnail; it was impossible to identify anyone, especially now that they huddled into groups for lunch. He began to ask people if they had seen Angel and his beans. It was mid-afternoon when Fredi came upon Angel and, more important, an empty kettle.
”We looked for you. We didn't see you. So we figured you were too busy to eat.”
Fredi thrust a finger into the fat man's soft chest. ”Man, you keep mine. I don't care what time it is, twelve, one, dos, tres o'clock. I want my fucking share. Entiendes?”
”Hombre, la culpa no es mia.”
”Chinga tu madre. La culpa es tuya. It's your fault, pendejo. I want--
I want--” Fredi tried to divide his ten dollars into six days to determine what a day's expense was. ”I want what I spent today.”
”But I don't have any money.” Despite the innocence of his plea, Angel locked on Fredi's face.
Fredi stood there perplexed. At last a snarling grin emerged. ”I want--I want, uh, fifteen chits.”
”Cabron, no es posible. I worked for them. I need them to have money for Cano, for the next week. If I give you my chits, I cannot participate in the collection next week. So who would do the shopping, who would do the cooking, who would bring the lunch, the hot lunch, to the field?”
No sooner had Fredi thought of a reply than Angel resumed. ”It wouldn't be possible, and then we wouldn’t be able to save any money. And we want to save money, don't we? Isn't it a good idea to pay ourselves, not Cano? Do you want to pay Cano or do you want to pay Fredi?”
Lest he be tempted to utter his own name, Fredi jabbed the flat of his hand into Angel's shoulder. ”Well, make sure this doesn't happen again. If it does... I come for you.”
”Fredi, I do---”
Fredi jogged the quarter mile back to his row. To him, picking tomatoes was not a backbreaking task. He had learned as a child. The secret was that whatever the required position, do not under any circumstances leave it; if you were on your knees, stay on your knees, if you were bowed, stay that way. When he and his mother harvested sweet potatoes in North Carolina, they bent over and pawed like dogs in the pitched-forked soil. Even when they sewed the sacks, they remained bent. The only comfort they took was to sit on the moist ground. If they sat too long, though, the moisture gave them the shits.
As he surveyed the field, Fredi wondered about these Mexicans. There were always men and women standing, stretching and rubbing their backs. He told himself to ask Jake why his people had never learned.
The more Fredi remembered about North Carolina the slower he picked. They were in an area purported to be the birthplace of the Klan, a fact that threatened his mother but not him. The name, the initials, scored no impression. At night the whites did not mind his mother at all. Daytime was altogether different. There were no makeshift bars as in Belle Glade. She was expected to work. In less than ten days Fredi had to do the gathering. He drew in the memory as he absorbed the anger that chaperoned it. Here he was an eight year old, and they had told him how many potatoes it took to fill a forty-pound bag. But he couldn't count past ten. Having gauged the weight by the strength it took to pull it, he was satisfied enough to drag it down the row to his mother who sat drowsily on a crate. After she had sewn it, the fat majordomo came up, hefted it, then with his knife slashed the bag and scattered the potatoes. Fredi fetched one that dropped in front of them. With little windup, he slung it at the man's jaw. The minute El Gordo fell Fredi vanished. There were cheers among the field hands until the majordomo beat his helpless mother with a leather strap.
Even with her bruises the white men came in the usual numbers. Having sharpened a stout stick on a rock, Fredi crouched in the corner of the shed. No one minded the boy. Before entering, the majordomo objected to a place at the end of the train. He pushed and abused his way into third. While he was over his mother, Fredi rammed the stick up his hairy ass on the first try.
The blacks helped them escape, first through the black woods, then on mules and after what seemed many miles, they jumped into the back of a pickup. To this day, Fredi marveled at how well rehearsed they were.
*****
”Solo el mas grande y el puro verde,” cried Cano.
The crew leader's exhortation broke the reverie. Fredi looked up to see that the truck had moved down the line. This meant he would have to run hundreds of yards farther to unload the bucket, and running with thirty pounds on your shoulder was what drained a man in the fields. He cursed wildly to himself in a language no one could understand. Too concerned with filling the bucket, he paid no attention to Cano and topped off with anything remotely green and round.
”Solo el mas grande y el puro verde.”
In a fluid move Fredi heaved the load onto his left shoulder at the same time he straightened.
”Mire, chico,” snarled Cano, knocking the tomatoes to the ground. He stomped and kicked and squashed them. Had Fredi not been so tired he would have laughed, for the skinny man looked like he was doing a hat dance.
”Que te digo? What do I tell you? Solo le mas grande, el puro verde. Estos no valen nada. These are worthless.”
”Pero ...” He was loathe to challenge the crew leader on such a matter. Frantic, he started over; it appeared as if he was trying to catch his hands. When Cano motioned to leave, he called out in English, ”Lucky for you. A nice stick and a good rock.”
The remark stopped Cano. He repeated it to himself three times. Watching Fredi scrambling, he asked, ”A stick and a rock?”
”Si, senor, good ones, only good ones. Old family custom. For luck.”
At a loss, Cano shook his head and marched off to the truck. He burst a large, worthless red tomato with a swift kick.


*****
On his way back from the truck Jesus stopped him. He was a wiry old man with just enough skin on his brown face to cover the ancient Indian bones. ”Cuidado, hijo. Be careful, son.” Pushing up his trademark straw hat, he tapped the side of his eye. ”I see you and him. I see.”
Fredi struggled against a quick recoil as Don Jesus draped his arms over Fredi's shoulders. The alcohol burning inside was too powerful a scent to accept on almost any terms. Fortunately, their chemically-darkened hands produced a countervailing odor. Don Jesus leaned close and said, ”I hear that the police in Ohio are after Angel and his two friends. They nearly killed someone there. Since it was a Mexican it is of no consequence. So the police search, but it is only with--” The instant he crossed his eyes Fredi erupted in laughter. He pointed at how the dark pupils almost collided into the bridge of the nose. ”No es un chiste, hijo. Ten cuidado,” snapped Jesus angrily. ”This is not a joke. You'd better be careful.”
”Si, si, senor, I do not think it is a joke.” In the midst of his contrition Fredi dropped his bucket. ”I apologize that you think so. I do not intend for it.” But, he wanted to add, I have never seen such a display. This is the second amazing act you have performed. The first was how you let the flies and gnats or whatever else settle on your gentle face and you did not even think to swat them. Unable to contain himself, Fredi asked, ”Pero en serio, senor, how do you do that with your eyes?”
”From years of looking too hard.”
Sam Lopez, the majordomo, called to them and each hustled off to his respective row.
Don Jesus impressed Fredi with his genuine concern, but from the day Don Jesus told him the first joke he knew he would never connect with the man. The joke was so simple Fredi wasn't at all sure it was meant to be funny:
”Habia un hombre tan honesto, pero tan honesto que cuando encontro trabajo lo devolvio.”
Fredi mulled over this notion of honesty: There was a man so honest, so, so honest that when he found work he gave it back.
Don Jesus looked expectantly, waiting for a laugh.
At last Fredi asked, ”Who did he give it back to?”
”Anda, chico!” exclaimed the old man in disgust. He stomped off, muttering, ”Que clase de pregunta era esa?”
********
Fredi and Jake turn east, extending a vigorous thumb whenever a car or truck passes. At length a pickup stops and its driver says he will take them as far as the Everglades migrant camp. Instantly Jake waves away the offer.
”What the fuck?” cries Fredi. ”He would have taken us half way?”
”It's the town or nothing.”
”Chinga, cabron.”
”I don't want to go there. I want to go to town.”
Jake is too adamant for Fredi to believe he is in such a hurry to get to Homestead. He understands perfectly that there is something keeping him away from the camp, but he knows better than to inquire. If it is important Jake will eventually tell him. ”So, gracias a ti, we get to town in a week or so.”
”Go fuck yourself.”
”All you say in English, Go fuck yourself. Four words. Don't you know more words?”
”Si,”replies Jake.
”Like what?”
”Motherfucking son of a bitch.”
”With that kind of mouth and you go to a religion school?”
”A Baptist school, yes. I am studied in the Bible, and that is right out of the Book of Escobar.”
”That's your fuckin' name! There ain't no book in the Bible with Escobar.”
”How do you know? You ever read it?”
Fredi stops walking. ”Well ... Well, no. But I do see it. And it ain't a book in the Bible. The Bible is a book, one book only. You can't fool me, you dumb motherfucker. The Bible is a book.”
Jake expels a laugh and stiff-arms his friend. ”That's right, man, a Bible is a book. No fooling you.”
In the briefest of intervals, Jake accuses himself of infidelity or abandonment. Exactly why he isn't sure. It centers on the training he received in the Bible, lessons not at all like his catechism. Granted, he has never discerned a difference: the latter explains the commandments and the former has tales of those who fail to keep them. In the end, there is punishment.
Still, he feels sullied, stained. Not until he understood that he was a pet project at First Southern Baptist was he without stain. Here he was the illegal immigrant, the ill-clothed heathen, an unspoken. In the beginning he eagerly accepted the way of The Lord. Or the proportion he understood. Little did the church know how poor his English was and how he coveted the pastor's daughter. The passion swelled to an urgency once he recognized his self betrayal, how he had abandoned San Miguel Aleman and all it stood for. The confusing part was: Did his father know this would happen when he placed him in the church's hands, a church whose entrance he had no intention of darkening?
Jakes' shove lands squarely on Fredi’s wounded shoulder. Fredi searches heavenward, wondering why everyone insists on marking him.
They proceed on in a comfortable silence. Fredi breaks it. ”A Bible is a book, isn't it?”
”Si, si, the holy one.”
Fredi nods to acknowledge he was right. He hides a thin smile.
After a while they hike side by side rather than single file. A farm truck swerves around them and stops. The lift takes them to the outskirts of town. They arrive a half-hour after nightfall.
At Jake's insistence they go to La Gran Via for a beer. While at the bar waiting for service, they see the majordomo Lopez approach and immediately turn their backs on him. Just as Lopez is about to speak, Jake swings around and checks a fist in mid-throw, inches from the majordomo's thick, porous nose. Jake apologizes profusely, claiming not to know who was at his back.
”Dumber than I thought you was, Escobar.” Lopez' voice is thick, as thick as his frame. His English is passable. ”You're lucky I don't kick your ass right now.”
”See, Jake,” says Fredi, turning. ”I tell you already and all day how it is your lucky day.”
”Hey, Chucho, shut the fuck up.” Lopez thrusts a finger at Fredi. ”Cano's over at your place right now cleaning your shit up. He's talking Angel out of killing you. So you keep away for a couple of hours, and let Cano do his work. Got it?”
”Psst,” says Jake to Lopez. He makes a show of turning his back on Fredi. Through cupped hands, he whispers in Spanish, ”You may want to alternate between Spanish and English. He has a tough time understanding when you speak in one language.” He adds, ”Vamos a ver” and swings back to Fredi. ”So, Fredi, puedes decirme what the fuck este cabron said a ti?”
”Most claro, yes.” Fredi replies perfunctorily. He hesitates. ”Yes, but then no. Que es Chucho?”
”No sabe nada,” sneers Lopez. He pumps his fists as he explains that Chucho Castillo was a famous boxer who defeated such greats as Jesus Pimentel and Ruben Olivares.
In deference to his friend, Fredi refrains from telling Lopez how he does not care about Mexican boxers or Mexico for that matter.
Jake waits a moment before asking, ”OK, now ask him if he understands the first part, the part about Cano at the room.”
”Pues?” Lopez waits expectantly. ”Entiendes the part about Cano con Angel?”
Fredi massages his brow. ”Is it the first or the end part of el segundo?” He quickly answers his own question. ”No, it is the fin del fin.” He works his closed lips to the right and then to the left. ”Yes, el parte when the cabron say, Keep a couple hours watch because Cano, he eat shit. No?”
”You two dumb fucks. You have nothing but trouble. Those brothers you beat-- ” He hesitates and smiles at their surprised reaction. ”You didn't think we knew, did you? There isn't anything that we don't know. Suppose Angel is their cousin. Then what, Mr. and Mr. Trouble? You have the brothers and Angel. You should have killed the brothers. And now look at you. Cano trying to keep one killer away and three others ready to kill you for sure. I'd say you're in trouble deep.”
”You mean to say trouble grande,” says Fredi, scarcely able to contain a laugh.
”Adios, Senor Pulga. Vete a otro recado.” Jake swings back to the bar and his beer.
Fredi hunches over his and after a minute asks, ”Otro recado, another greeting?”
”Errand. Recado is errand.”
”How is it that so much of what you say is different. Recado is greeting, no?”
”No,” He swishes away flies from his beer.
Fredi feels a nudge and then a tap on his wounded shoulder. Squeezing his eyes, he shouts, ”Jesus, Maria y Jose!” He pivots sharply, grasping the neck of the bottle.
”Amigo mio! Estas aqui y no dices nada a mi? You come here and don't even say hello,” exclaims the man they call Pariente. ”Why do you do this to me? Me, the professor, the great man of greater learning.”
A burst of laughter sprays Pariente, who stiffens and blinks in defense but then slaps Fredi on the back to help rid him of his choking.
Jake steps away from the two. He does not trust this old man, who is indeed old but not in the sense that Don Jesus is old. Jesus is years old, Pariente is living old. Although he still has dark hair which he wears matinee idol long, a life of little style has battered and cracked his face into a hundred of sad lines. Jake loathes a man who hasn't the strength, much less the self-respect, to pick enough tomatoes to support himself. He remembers a Saturday when Pariente, stumbling drunk, picked a bucket, puked in it and then delivered it to the truck. The loader smelled it the second after he poured the contents into the bin. Cano dismissed him from the fields, but no one dismissed the event. A bucket of puke is now referred to as a Pariente. The jokes abound: such as, How many Pariente's does it take to fill a bucket? Answer: A Friday night. Answer: One not so good man from Toluca. Answer: One schoolmaster from Toluca provided he slept in it the night before ....
Because of the less than severe punishment, a mere half-day expulsion, Jake believes Cano subsidizes the man. What Pariente does in return is something Jake never wants to know, preferring instead to keep his distance.
Even as he slides farther away from them, he smiles when he hears Fredi say, ”Pariente, is it time for school? Should I go for to get my books and pencils?”
”No, hijo, hoy vamos a aprender una historia acerca de todo el mundo.”
”Learn a story about everyone? Que dices, profesor?”
”Not a story about everyone. A story about Mr. Everybody.”
”Like a Senor Busybody?”
”No, Mr. Everybody. If you want to hear it, it will cost a beer.”
”Who should have to pay for school? The time I go it was free.”
”Not this school. This is a rich, rich lesson. Como Jesus Cristo en la montana.” Upon a moment's reflection, Pariente adds, ”Maybe it is worth two beers.”
Fredi feigns deliberation. ”OK, a beer. A beer before the price goes up.”
”Bueno, estudiante,” says Pariente, ”here is the story. It's a very old story, a venerable story, one they teach at the major universities. Scholars study it over and over and over again--”
”Anda, profesor, begin the story.”
”Bueno,” says Pariente, shuffling his shoes as if to set himself. ”OK, here is the story. There are four people in it. A man named Everybody, another man named Somebody, another called Anybody and a fourth named Nobody. There--”
”This is a tale then, not a story?”
”A tale, a story, what the fuck!”
”Anda, Pariente, it's only a question.'
”Raise your hand when you have another.”
”Raise a hand?” says Fredi in whiny English.
”Shut up! Let me continue.” Pariente composes himself by feeling a deep breath pass into his chest and by waving to the bartender for a beer. ”Now there is this important task that--”
”What task?”
”Will you raise your fucking hand?”
”No.”
”Well, OK, then.” He expels a sigh, as he watches the dewy bottle slide in front of him. ”OK, then, they had to, uh, they had to pick six bins of tomatoes in one hour. And Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it ... Ai, espera.” He takes a drink. ”Because if they did not do it, the world would end, OK?”
”The world ends if you don't pick six bins?” Fredi asks, not masking his sarcasm.
”Estudiante, you want the lesson or no?”
”I fucking paid for it. Yes!”
”OK,” Pariente smooths back his wavy hair. ”Now Everybody thought that Somebody would do it. And Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. So Somebody got pissed off because it was Everybody's job, and Everybody thought it was Anybody's job. Well, Anybody said fuck you. And Nobody said that Everybody wouldn't do it. So then Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did a fucking thing.” Pariente concluded with a resolute nod.
Fredi withdraws his eyes from Pariente's face. He stares at his beer bottle while working the words internally.
Pariente nudges him. ”Pretty fucking good, no? Worth another beer?”
After a long moment Fredi peers at him, his mouth agape. His stare is shortlived as his eyes drop as if to watch his lips work the words.
”Pretty deep, eh, estudiante?”
Fredi nods passively. ”Deep, yeah, deep. Deep, deep.”
Before Pariente has a chance to bilk another beer, Jake grabs Fredi by the wounded shoulder. ”Marchamos, ya.”
Almost instinctively, Jake knew when to pull or push Fredi. Sometimes it was not because of danger but safety. While Pariente scarcely posed a threat, Jake sensed some sort of infringement. From what quarter he did not know. The crowd at La Gran Via had thickened. Many faces he couldn't see and many more he didn't recognize.
Among the Mexicans, Jake was the tallest, not quite up to Fredi's height, but head and shoulders over most. He was lean, his face angular. Despite his light brown complexion, some of the Baptist girls in Barberville made much over his resemblance to JFK Jr. Jake studied the pictures in People magazine, flicking between his image in the mirror and the photographs. He scoffed at the suggestion; Kennedy hadn't the legacy of Mexican centuries; he didn't have the reddish brown skin of the people of San Miguel Aleman, he didn't have the casting that work, hard labor, imposed on the face and the eyes, his expression didn't have the strength that came when one had neither money nor prospects; in short, he didn't have Jake's pride.

”Oh, man, I was this close to understanding it,” whines Fredi, as they walk down the sidewalk. ”What you have against El Pariente?”
”Why doesn't he go home?”
”Home ain't that simple, man.” He adds, ”And what about these fucking brothers? You think they're after us?”
”If they had guts.”
”You think Angel is a cousin?”
”You aren't afraid, are you?”
”Of the cousins, let's see? I took down two to your one. Angel, my one to your none. So you are, uh--”
Without either one having to say it, they turn into the Downtown Bar. Fredi easily forgets the math as they enter a bleak patch of darkness, a malaise illuminated here and there by small artificial candles. A destitute collection of old people slump over the long bar. There are no Mexicans, no pickers. For that fact alone they enjoy this place.
Fredi yells, ”Un Chivas” and bangs the flat of his hand on the bar.
Huey, the bartender, ignores him, treating Fredi just as he would any other customer.
”Chivas, Chivas,” bellows Fredi.
”Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear ya.” Huey pulls two drafts and after a slow walk, slams them down in front of them. ”I done tole you. That guy Chivas don't come here no more.”
Fredi spews foam, choking on his laughter. Jake shakes his head in consternation, utterly amazed that straight-faced Huey and guffawing Fredi continue night after night with this joke about Chivas Regal.
”You boys gonna buy me one tonight?” asks Huey. Despite the air conditioning, his brow beads with sweat. ”I sure could use one. Been a tough night.”
Jake says, ”Too--”
”Yeah, OK,” interrupts Fredi.
Jake puffs stiff air out the right side of his mouth. He pulls on his drink, making no small show of slamming it down half empty. Since the barroom fight, when an unkown of sturdy build and light skin rescued him, he has always had to attend to something. Within the past few hours there has been Angel and Cano and Pariente and now Huey, Huey the mooch. The onslaught bulldozes Jake, but the truth is that today is no exception. These encounters, be they dangerous or costly, are everyday occurrences.
Weary though Jake is, it is all he can do not to be drawn into Fredi's demented schemes. The lure and lust of his enthusiasm is a siren. For instance, the other night Fredi proposed they break into a house for the sole purpose of watching television; he argued that they could watch soccer, futbol mexicano, or cartoons, his favorite, or--or anything in colorful pictures, pictures that were so far removed from their life, their way, the fields. That there were no lights and the place seemed empty tempted Jake. Fredi put the odds that they would get caught at two million to one; how he arrived at that figure Jake had no idea. But he considered the proposition. Now in retrospect, the fact that he had given the notion a second of thought, much less a minute, astounded him. Commit a crime just to watch TV? What was he thinking?
If that is Fredi's most harmless notion, his proposal to rid themselves of the black hands ranks at the other extreme. At the end of every day they wash with red, ripe tomatoes, ones they are not allowed to pick, to clean their chemical-stained hands. The tomato acid burns through the toxic crust and crud, but not entirely. A woman in a convenience store noticed his hands and asked him if he was a car mechanic. The way she pronounced mechanic dispirited Fredi, even more so because he was ashamed to tell her what he really did. The solution! Rinse with lighter fluid and then set a soft match to them. According to Fredi, the skin wouldn't burn since the fluid appeared to float atop the flesh.
Still and all, Jake couldn't help but admire the spirit in the man. Here he is with no true past, Puerto Rican for a mother and a question mark for a father, no hometown like Jake's San Miguel Aleman, no family on which to rely; there is no backbone in Fredi's past, nothing to connect him to the earth. But Fredi manages in spite of it all.
”Oje, hijo, haz me un favor. Keep what is ours to ourselves. Don't tell the world our business.”
”What business?”
Jake frowns. ”No, no, no. When I say business, I mean our affairs, los asuntos ... You know, what happens to us.”
”What happens to us?”
”Vamos a ver, pendejo, first we have a knife fight--”
”Oh, that. It does happen to us. I see. So who wants to know?”
Jake expels bad air and drinks. ”Well, no one. But you don't have to tell everyone, everyone like Huey.”
”Oh,” Fredi draws out, ”I understand. Secrets! This is about secrets.”
”Bueno, por fin--”
”But sometimes a secret is what I do?”
Perplexed, Jake asks, ”What secret?”
”About what I do.”
”You pick tomatoes. What's the secret about that?”
”Claro, tonto, pero I don't want people to know? I mean, sometimes.”
”Why?”
”That seems a secret too? I don't know why.” Fredi shrugs.
Jake drinks. ”You know why? I know why.” He drinks. ”You know why--”
”Because--because of what I am. I don't have a place, I don't have a house, I don't have a--”
”Enough,” Jake interrupts. ”You dumb fuck, you have more than most people with a house, with a place. You have a mind to think, you have a back to work, you have fists to protect, you have yourself to keep your honor. And you know this. And you use this. So shut the fuck up about your work. It is worthy of you. You do, you get. You do and don't get, then we have a problem.”
Finishing his beer, Fredi says ”You know, Pariente dijo lo mismo cuando, said the same when--”
”Anda, Pariente,” Jake jests. ”That moron.” He holds up a quarter. ”Now you call it, estudiante. Heads or tails?”
The winner takes Tricia, a heavy set, white woman who literally carved a notch in the bar for every migrant she had.
”Ponytails,” says Fredi.
”Maricon, it's heads. Mala suerte. Me voy.”
Fredi protests, ”Man, you always win. Let me see that coin.”
Jake is already on his way down to the darker end of the bar for his blowjob.
”Hey, Huey, ven.” Fredi waves. In the face of the bartender's reluctance, he says, ”C'mon, I buy you another. I want to tell you a story.” As an afterthought, he says, ”It's educational. Like school.”
”What about?” asks Huey
”About tomatoes and the end of the world.”
”Izzitgonna take long?”
”No, no, senor.” He slides a quarter to him. ”Here, for to get a beer.”
With Huey now a captive audience, Fredi begins: ”Well, there is the four guys, one name Everybody, another calls Somebody, then a Nobody and a Anybody.” He can't help but guffaw. ”Huey, this is--this is wonderful. Just listen.
”So—so ... And these guys got to save the world. So-so, they had to pick six--no, ten bins of tomatoes in fifteen minutes. And so ... Yeah ... and so Mister Somebody thought Senor Everybody should do it. But then Anybody said Anybody could do it, and then Nobody said Nobody move, every fuckin' one of you do it. And then Somebody said, ”We--Who the fuck are you to tell us what to do?” And Everybody got pissed off and--and Nobody did a fuckin' thing.”
Huey stares blankly.
”Venga, cabron. Don't you get it? It's like it's up to Everybody but Nobody does it.”
”Yeah?”
Fredi rests an elbow on a crossed arm. He repeatedly taps a fist against his upper lip. At length, he tightens the fist and slams it on the bar. ”Damn! that Pariente! He owes me my money back.”
Upon reflecting about Jake's asuntos, he says, ”Everybody owes me my money back. And I'll be a motherfucker if this Nobody comes along. I kick his fuckin' ass.”
*****
Despite the rumors in the field that Angel plans to kill Fredi in the most diabolical way, there is relative calm between the two. On Cano's orders, Fredi is the first of the lot to receive his share of the beans and bread. Jake cautions against eating it, mentioning that Angel has probably pissed in it. ”If so,” smiles Fredi, ”it makes them taste better. This is free, man, and free is always good.” Jake doesn't have the heart to tell him he is only making up for the week he didn't get his share.
Cano also sees to it that they are seldom together. Each is asked to take a different van to the fields. One day Jake openly questions the logic since the two remain roommates. ”Because none of you fight when there is no one to break it up,” replies Cano, smiling through his pointed little teeth. ”You don't have the balls to kill.”
”And you do, jefe?” challenges Jake.
”Never without a reason.” Before Jake can think of a reply, he adds, ”A reason better than beans.”
In a sense Cano is right. Fredi and Angel police themselves. If one appears intent on staying at the apartment, the other leaves without question or remonstration. The system works well for nine days, then Angel brings home a bottled blonde. She is the size of a tomato bin. Later Fredi would wonder how many buckets it would take to fill her. Because of her girth everyone refers to her as ”La Gordita,” the diminutive because of her short shorts, sleeveless shirt which is three sizes too small, and what looks like ballerina slippers. Ignorant of the language, La Gordita smiles demurely when they shout her name. She blinks back a blush and casts her red eyes aside. So hopelessly drunk is she that the gesture suggests she intends to vomit.
Of the half dozen men in the room, only Jake speaks. His English is simple but serviceable. ”What is your true name?”
Angel covers her mouth as she attempts to answer. Now she does appear as if on the verge of nausea. Jake steps forward adamant about pulling Angel's arm away. Junior and Rogelio intercede. He relents although the importance of knowing her name intensifies. A sadness unlike anything he has ever seen grips this woman. There is so much flesh on her pale face and puffy neck that it weighs the wretched expression down even further. Her look sickens him and for some reason he thinks that by knowing her name the feeling of revulsion will cease. When Angel announces that they are going into his bedroom, Jake recalls what a Puerto Rican told him about fat, white women: you can do whatever you want on a big ship.
Angel insists that everyone leave the apartment. Junior suggests he turn off the lights until he is through so they will know when to return.
”Turn off the lights,” scoffs Fredi. ”Just close the pinche door. I ain't leavin'.”
Out of respect for the sadness more so than the woman, Jake grabs his arm, and they leave.
Fredi shouts back, ”I want to hear the mariposa fuck her. I want to hear the screams and cries, I want to hear their sweat.”
All the men wait in the dark heat of the parking lot. They stare as one as the light go off on their second floor apartment.
”Venga, Junior,” says Fredi. ”Start counting. Quiero saber cuando tiempo, how much time.” He adds, ”I bet thirty seconds.”
No one has time to count, much less tire of waiting. The lights come on.
”Joder!” exclaims Fredi, too embarrassed for Angel, any man, to laugh.
”Maybe it was because she was too drunk,” offers Junior.
”A mi,” says Fredi, placing his right hand on his chest, ”no me import lo que paso. Vamos a dormir, let's go to bed.”
They pass silently into the apartment. Despite the open door to Angel's room, no one dares look.
*****
In the fields the next day Jake finds himself among men who live with Don Jesus, the old man made of sticks and hair.
”Pues, donde esta el viejo? Que pasa con el?” he says, asking Pascal and Benito where the old man is.
Pascal answers by holding his nose and grimacing.
”Anda, cabron, que significa eso? What's happened to the old man?”
”Too much drink. It comes out everywhere.”
Benito adds, ”Blood, too.”
”Which smells as bad.”
”If he is bad, how does he get--” Even before Jake finishes the question, he answers it. ”Cano.”
”Claro que si.”
”He kills him, no?”
Both shrug.
Pascal replies, ”Cano says he is a doctor. He says he know what is good for the senor.”
”Mierda! Uds creen eso? You don't believe this, do you?”
They shrug without conviction.
Jake dumps a half-filled bucket into Pascal's. ”Here, good friend of the old one. Payment for looking after him.” He turns over his bucket and sits on it. He curses to himself, every so often releasing a wail. Nearly a half mile away, Fredi hears none of this. No one in the vicinity pays any attention.
********
It was Don Jesus who once asked Jake if he had a social security number. When Jake said no, he indicated that he didn't have one either. For Jake there was an annoyingly long pause. Before he could ask, ”So?” Don Jesus asked why Cano was taking out social security taxes. ”In whose name he pay the taxes?”
The question confused Jake. ”Ours?”
”Oh, so the government knows our name?” He added, ”But it hasn't issued us a number. We are not here, hijo. Te recuerdas?”
”So in whose name does he pay the taxes?”
Don Jesus smiled patiently. ”In no name.”
”Who is that?”
Jesus clicked his tongue. ”He is not paying taxes.” The clicking caused an abrupt convulsion in his breathing. He struggled with a cough. After a moment, he regained control. A gangly brown hand pressed firmly on his chest, he said, ”The man keeps our fucking money.”
”But--
”But what?” said Sam Lopez, sneaking up behind them. The field steward added, ”But why aren't you picking en lugar de hablar--”
Don Jesus fell into another coughing jag, this one bringing him to his knees.
Lopez ordered them back to work.
”Fuck your work. He is an old man,” said Jake, shouting for everyone and anyone to listen. ”Look, man, you have to do something. Send him home. Let him go to his fathers. What is one more bucket to him? It--”
Lopez answered, ”It is what he wants.”
”To die en Los Estados Unitos de Cano?” said Jake.
”Get back to work.”
Jakes rubbed the back of the old man's back. ”Look, man, he's bleeding. Get me something to wipe his mouth.” This kind of blood alarmed Jake as much for Don Jesus' sake as for his own. He was in close contact with it. In his village he had been admonished to avoid black blood; the color possessed a spirit that jumped from one person to the next—in less time than it takes to breathe.
When Lopez returned with a paper napkin, Jake said, ”Listen to his breathing, cabron. He can't breathe. You have to help him. Take him to a hospital, un medico por lo menos.”
By now Don Jesus had fallen forward from a kneeling position. His black mouth heated the dirt. Lopez laid a consoling hand on his hunched shoulder. ”Calmase, hombre. We will take you for the medicine.” He looked up and assured Jake, ”We will, man. Don't worry. He will get the best. Now go back to work. ”
In a less confrontational tone, Jake asked, ”But one minute I am talking to him and the next he is spitting blood. What happened?”
Lopez shrugged, ”Maybe the blood said it was time to leave? I don't know. Now go back to work. It's for your own good.”
*****
The following day Jake hears that Cano has forcibly removed Jesus from the apartment. In payment for the liquor, rent and other services, Cano takes everything the old man had. To Jake's surprise he learns there was wood furniture, a Dodge truck, Sears hand tools, and wads of money that Cano was to have mailed to Mexico.
Bucketless, he walks up to Fredi, a quarter of a mile away, and informs him of what has happened. Fredi knows immediately what he has to do. He punches Jake, but in the stomach. The fight is shortlived as others rush to stop it. There is no sign of Cano or Lopez.
*****
On the third day of Jesus' absence, no one speaks of him. Not Benito, not Pascal. No one has heard of him, much less from him. Jake's suspicions are confirmed that night at The Downtown Bar. Even before he begs for a beer, Huey tells them of the Mexican found in a gutter having drowned in his straw hat.
”How do you drown in your hat?” asks Fredi. ”You drown in water, no?”
”No, you drown in puke. Believe it or not, he puked in his hat and then fell in it face first.” He adds, ”What a God awful way to go!”
Four-by-eight stud boards do not stand as straight as Fredi and Jake. Neither speak. With a nod of the head Jake signals to leave. Fredi presses lightly on his shoulder. ”No, tio, vamos a tomar una copa, una tostada en honor de un hombre decente.”
Jake marvels at the sentence structure more so than the gesture. ”Let's toasts to the honor of a decent man.”
”Bien dicho,” says Jake, Well said. He slaps the bar. ”Huey, you take one too.”
Huey, taking liberties with the generosity, lines up three sixteen-ounce glasses. Each reaches for one.
”OK,” says Fredi, hoisting his glass in the air. ”Who has a toast?”
Amid the anxiety to drink was a strangled silence.
”Uh,” says Huey. ”Who's--”
”Vamos a ver--” says Jake.
”I know!” announces Fredi. ”Pues, en fin. Esto es para la brisa que sopla las faldas de las chicas.”
”Whatever,” says Huey and drinks greedily.
Jake looks askance. ”This is for the breezes that blow young girls' skirts?”
”Si, si. Jesus me dijo eso,” says Fredi and downs his beer to add emphasis to his the remark,
”He told you that, did he?” asks Jake. He smiles to himself and drinks.
”Yeah, well, did this guy, Zeus, tell you about the strike?” asks Huey.
If they were at a loss for a suitable toast, their ignorance runs deeper now. ”A strike?”
Fredi says, ”I no hear no strike?”
”At's what I hear,” says Huey. ”Uh, three more?”
Their heads babble. Now there understand why Cano has been passing out bottles of whiskey.
*****
The following morning Angel is too drunk to pick. Junior stays behind to tend to his friend. When the van arrives Cano instructs Fredi and Jake to ride with him and tells the others to wait for Lopez.
No sooner has the door shut than Jake asks, ”What about the strike?” He speaks in English because he knows it makes the crew leader uncomfortable.
”It is to happen. That is why I ask you to come with me today. Strike or no, we pick. These motherfuckers cannot deprive us of our livelihood. We--”
Jake asks, ”What's it about?”
Fredi is oblivious, working the word, livelihood, in his mouth.
For some reason Cano refuses to look at Jake who sits at his side and talks to Fredi in the rearview. He explains that the United Migrant Association has organized the migrant camp. This renegade outfit wants 45 cents a bucket, a 15-cent increase. ”For what, I ask you? For what?”
Hearing the number, Fredi enters the conversation with, ”But last year we get 45 cents?”
”How much they pay you, jefe?” Jake doesn't wait for an answer. ”Fifty cents? Fifty-five?”
”Boys, boys, boys, the money will work itself out. But I need your help.” Cano's small brown hand repeatedly goes from gripping the steering wheel, to rubbing his mouth and chin, to wiping the slime his hand collects on his breast pocket. ”Now listen, if there is a strike, we will still go pick. That is what you want, isn't it? I mean, you want to make money, don't you? In fact, if we go, I will forgive what you owe.”
All the services Cano provides are not without a price. There have been weeks when Fredi received a paltry $30, surrendering $300 to Cano for rent, food, women, drink, transportation, taxes and bucket rental.
”How much owe I?” asks Fredi.
He smiles into the rearview, ”Not much. Lo normal. I don't know exactly. But we won't worry about it, will we?”
Jake asks, ”If there is a strike and we go with you, what?”
Cano is at a traffic light. He scratches, almost contentedly, in the hollow of his right shoulder. ”I give you ten dollar bonus.”
”Man!” exclaims Fredi. ”Gracias, senor.”
”Ten dollars at the start or the end?” Just as Cano is about to answer, Jake adds, ”Or both?”
”I give you ten dollars first and then 40 cents.”
When Jake asks why, Fredi wants to choke him.
Cano smiles, revealing his pointy teeth. ”It's good business.”
*****
At dawn the following morning Cano takes Jake, Fredi, Junior, Angel, Rogelio, and three others to a field they have never seen. The circuitous route takes them to a field boxed in by woods and absent of the gray plastic lined mounds. To their utter amazement these strange acres gush with the only kind of tomato they can pick--large and green. Along with seventy others, passengers of a half dozen vans and trucks, they stand with stars for eyes as Cano marches into the rows and holds up a huge tomato. He raises it as if he is the Statue of Liberty. At that moment everyone recognizes the promised land; with bonus and price hike, this could be a $100 day. The dollars bills are laying there begging to be picked--and quickly. On a normal day Cano urges his crew to take its time, not to over-extend. Not today. In no uncertain terms he tells them today could be the last day and to make the most of it.
By mid-morn two more tractor-trailers with empty bins create great swirls of dirt as they make for the side of the field. Jake sees Cano talking with the farmer Trano who every few seconds talks into a walkie-talkie. After a moment he gives Cano a nod. The crew leader climbs up on the truck. He tells the driver to hit the horn. After the extended blast, Cano announces that the chits are worth 50 cents. The only reaction he receives is the one he wants. The men work feverishly.
On a dead run to the truck Jake spots a lone figure at least ten rows behind the pack. While he waits for the attendant to dump his load, he determines that it is Fredi. Fredi the imbecile, the idiot who picks between glances at the dinosaur machine at the far end of the field. A half hour ago everyone heard, long before they saw, the gigantic picker. It came down a trail. From where they didn't know or care. It moved and looked like a dinosaur. They refer to it as El Monstruo. Unlike them, it grabs the entire plant, the ground with it, and shakes its load onto a conveyor belt that carries the red and green and bruised fruit to an awaiting truck.
As Jake is running back, he hears the last truck in line crank its engine. He stops and watches it back-up in the direction of El Monstruo. He calls to Fredi, ”Oye, imbecil, apurale.”
Fredi shows no signs of hearing. But Cano heard Jake and quick-steps over to Fredi.
”Oiga, senor, mind telling me what you are doing? Doing as I buy you 50 cents a bucket?' asks Cano.
As if drawn from a trance, Fredi says from a kneeling position, ”Oh, oh, jefe. Look.” He points to the treaded picker. ”I see it in movies. It eats the earth.”
”Fredi!” shouts Cano who delivers a mighty push.
Fredi topples. In coming to his feet, he exclaims, ”But, jefe, look. It's--”
”Fuck the fucking machine. Pick or--or you will never pick again. I'm paying 50 cents. Do you hear me, thick head. 50 cents.”
”Si, si, si, I hear, but look--”
Cano grabs him by the arm and spins him so that his back is to El Monstruo. ”Now pick. Work like you have never worked before.”
Within an hour, Fredi understands the urgency in Cano's message. A motorcade converges on the field waving a white flag that bears the insignia of the United Migrants Association. Immediately Trano, the farmer, radios for police. There are minor skirmishes between strikers and pickers nearest the road. The strike leader raises a bullhorn and asks everyone to quit the field. Fredi takes no side. He turns over his half full bucket and sits to watch the dinosaur. Jake, on the other hand, hurls red tomatoes toward the road, not caring who he hits. With less than a full bucket he runs the load to the truck and there lingers, fearing the intervention of the police. If they appear, he will jump into an empty bin: allegiances and campesinos be damned.
Just before the protestors breach the field, Cano runs its length asking everyone to unload what they have picked. He promises it will count as a full bucket.
Junior yells to the bin attendant. ”Oye, cabron, I have picked only one. So here.” And he tosses a tomato at the man.
Jake answers Cano's call by shoving two fingers down his throat to induce vomit. When he has what resembles a Pariente, he hoists the bucket on his shoulder and runs to the flatbed. He pitches the load up and the attendant no sooner catches it than drops it, bucket and all topple into the bin. Over the curses Jake demands his chit.
Entranced as he is by the machine, Fredi catches a darting figure out of the corner of his eye. Cano is racing, half stumbling, toward the woods. Fredi gives chase.
Upon hearing footfalls, Cano whirls, flashing a switchblade. At the sight of his red and black gums cresting his pointed teeth, Fredi says, ”Chinga, hombre, you have to do something about that mouth of yours.”
Cano sneers. His backpedaling reminds Fredi of a cornered animal. ”Oye, jefe, soy yo. No hay dano.”
”What you want?” Cano snarls in English.
Fredi holds up his arms in surrender. ”Oye, senor, di me how can you brings us here. Half with no papers and the police to come?”
”You make the good money, no?” Cano, still stepping back, doesn't wait for an answer. ”Sometimes I can't always protect.”
An increase in volume of the tumult behind them spurs Fredi. ”A mi, there is no worry. But Jake, yes. Pero, jefe, sobre el dinero. I want the money. A loan maybe. This shit continues. What me and Jake to do?”
”How much?” The moment Cano stops backtracking, Fredi knows he is in the negotiation stage.
”Well, let us look clearly. We pick at 50 cents today. And we pick more or less--Jake 65 and me 55. So we have, uh, uh, one, one, five. Times 50 cents. Is--is, uh--is--”
Cano throws $50 dollars on the ground.
The moment he turns to run Fredi calls, ”What for the rest of the week? We worked, no?”
Upon hearing a truck engine crank, Fredi spits and exclaims, ”Puta---”
*****
La Gran Via comes to a complete stop the moment Jake slams a cue stick into Lopez' thick nose.
In an instant, all the breathable air leaves, replaced by a metallic tang. Two knives click as Lopez falls. The silence shines like concertina wire in the sun. Everyone rears back.Grunting, the combatants leap. Jake stands calmly and batters each with the broken cue. The one that Jake particularly despises catches it in the left eye. More blood, truly loud in color. Especially against the green velvet of the pool table. The second is a man named El Burro because his long face resembles a donkey. He dances like a drunken Russian until Jake's third thrust. Even on his back he continues to thrust his legs as if in an exotic dance.
In this long rectangular room, stale with sweat and beer, old smoke and older curses, there is only one person who is not interested, not in the least aware of what is happening. And that is Fredi.
Fredi studies the stuffed owl screeching over the cash register. He wonders about flight: he imagines weightlessness, the idea of soaring, giving oneself up to the thermals to ride and glide on an unseen road. The true expanse of wings positively marvels Fredi. If only given such a gift, there would be no numbers to count how far he flies, how many miles he glides, how long he merely rests on the very air itself. He tells himself if there are records for such feats he will surpass them. He will soar one hundred, maybe two hundred miles, maybe to a river the likes of the Mississippi; over houses and farms, over mountains with snow and forests with trees as old as the world, maybe over other rivers that glisten blue from head to tail; but above all, over crews and crew leaders, scorpions and snakes, fire ants and prickly bushes, mosquitoes and black flies, over stagnant water that smells so odious even shit becomes fragrant, over the blood puke of a picker on a Saturday night, over the need for food and the want for McDonald's, over and over, over and over... Just to be over it all. An end, Dios mio.
At last Fredi abandons his reverie. In the mirror behind the bar, he sees Jake poised to spear a man with a broken cue stick. Nonchalantly he turns and sips his beer. He braces his elbows on the bar and hollers, ”Venga, cabron.”
He shakes his head in acknowledgment of his talent for predicting Jake's behavior. It was Jake's idea to come here tonight. Backtracking from there Fredi follows a trail of anger: from the striker's assault at the field, to the slow awakening that they have the lost their wages, and finally to the ultimate insult, that they had to hike back to town. It even stretches farther to Don Jesus and his death in a gutter and to Huey for being the one to inform them.
Only briefly does Fredi wonder if he too is capable of such feeling. It takes less than a moment for him to understand the answer; he has witnessed the death of everything that could and should die, die right in front of him; men by bullet and blade; women by fist and pricks; children by starvation and drugs and everything else that kills child and parents alike. There were times when he thought blood wasn't meant to stay in the body; he has seen men's eyes drip blood, an extreme blackish drip, he has had to staunch fevered menstrual blood and led men with black piss away to the woods. He has had to cleanse his mother's sores and to clean the dirt blood from a lifeless child.
Dead is dead, he tells himself. There is no more to it. En fin.
The fight between Jake and Lopez started with a question: Whose side are you on? Lopez asked. He looked to Fredi first but he doesn't understand the question. There were so many sides: right side, left side; black against white, up against down; green against red, dirt verses what is buried under it. Fredi simply shrugged. ”But I tell you this, amigo mio, I want my money. Tell Cano that.”
Lopez ignored him and strutted over to the pool table to interrogate Jake, who told him that if the strike costs Cano money then he is all in favor of it. They exchanged insults and shoves, each accused the other of not having papers.

The mere mention of documentation strikes fear in most. An accusation broadcast across a room registers the ultimate betrayal. Jake steps away as if relenting. He counts no more than three steps before he turns and swings the cue stick, implanting it smartly into the bridge of Lopez' nose.
Appearing as phlegmatic as possible, Fredi marvels at the blood Jake has shed. There's Lopez on the floor whimpering while rivulets stream down his face. Another acts like on turtle on its back and the third empties his life on the green of the pool table.
”Cuidado,” calls out Fredi when two more knives approach, this time not in the blind rush of the first two. Their flanking move worries Fredi. He breaks his bottle and strikes his Mighty Mouse pose. He literally hops into the fray, taking the right flank. Fredi and Jake touch hands. While it looks like an underhand high-five, the maneuver is meant to understand the distance between them. The silence of the assailants troubles Fredi. Usually a combatant issues taunts and threats; but there seems to be steel in the resolve they face. Without ever communicating, both Fredi and Jake lunge. Immediately the two aggressors run, one for the front door and the other the back.
”Di adios a Cano. Say goodbye to the prick.”
Of the two, Fredi is the true fighter; there is something about the delivery and receipt of a punch, about the bloodletting, the coursing madness, the sense of immortality even as you bleed your vulnerability, that explains why over his right eye is a permanent indentation of a signet ring. It is the remnant of a great duel, at least for Fredi, of a man against a boy, and the boy won and at the same time lost. He defeated the man and in so doing lost his boyhood.
Unlike Jake, Fredi doesn't seek or require a cause. Just the other day one of the men now lining the wall cut into his row to prick the easiest of the big, green tomatoes. The fight was brief. Cano interceded.
With La Gran Via caught in a puzzled paroxysm, Fredi sees his chance. In a blinding strike he rushes the intrusive picker and breaks what is left of his bottle over the man's head. A marionette, its strings cut, doesn't slide any easier. Against the green wall is a trail of black hair and blood. Fredi's Mighty Mouse pose or no, none dares retaliate. Even so, they back out of the bar carefully, understanding that the only threat is in front of them. Under no circumstances will anyone call the police. Every man in that room, while not above the law or below it, is beyond it.
On the street, wintry in contrast to La Gran Via, they step quickly, occasionally looking back. After a block or so they slow down. Fredi says, ”Ya know, man, none of this happens if you don't do like Pariente and puke in the bucket. Man, you pissed everyone off.”
Jakes shakes his head, disheartened that he has been right about Pariente all along, for just the other night he saw Cano bring the old man a fresh mattress. When he confronted the crew leader, he learned that reliable men need to be well rested. In deference to the camaraderie between Fredi and Pariente, Jake has not mentioned any of this. He says, ”Pariente should leave. Go home. He can't pick. Eighty, eighty-five buckets, Cano's got him.”
”He has told of wanting to go but he is afraid Cano will reach him all the way to Toluca.”
”Toluca,” repeats Jake scornfully. ”It is where boys turn to ants and girls to butterflies.”
”And Cano can do that?” Fredi covers his mouth to contain his voice.
”Que burro eres! What an idiot you are! It's a story.”
”That happened in the magic place of Toluca?”
”That didn't fuckin' happen anywhere, idiota!”
After a moment Fredi replies, ”Oh.” His dreams dashed, he adds, ”So where's Toluca?”
”West of Mexico City.”
”In the mountains?”
”Yes, I suppose so. The Sierra Madre.”
”You suppose? But you're from Mexico.
”Claro, pero no de Toluca.”
”Well, I know where Miami is. And it ain't in the mountains.”
”And I, cabron, know where Mexico is.”
They walk on until Fredi jerks to a stop. ”Oye, remember the last time Cano made us wait. Remember we couldn't pick because--because I--I don't know why, but you and Jesus and Pascal went off to pick mangos, and I sat there watching a big bird. Man, I think it was an owl.”
”Un buho? Man, they are of the night. Not morning.”
”No, I believe it was owl.”
'It was a buzzard, Fredi. Un pinche buzzard.”
”No, no, senor. It was owl. I know.” He pauses reflectively. ”You think if I was owl I fly to the Mississippi River? And not stop?
”Where's the Mississippi River, Mister Owl?”
Fredi hesitated. ”Uh, by-over by Texas.”
”Shit, I know where the Mississippi is, and I'm not from here.”
Fredi ignores the remark because his stupid friend missed his point. Now he would have to explain it. ”Just imagine having claws like owl. Think of all the pussy I'd get.”
”Man, what are you talking about? C'mon, let's get a beer.”
They enter The Downtown Bar. Emerging from the end of a dark passage, Fredi calls out, ”Un Chivas,” and bangs his flat hand on the bar.
”Yeah, yeah, I hear ya,” cries Huey. He pulls two drafts and slowly walks them down. ”I done told ya. That Chivas guy don't come here no more.”
Great gobs of laughter rush from Fredi. Bemused, Jake shakes his head at no one in particular.
””You boys gonna buy me one tonight?” asks Huey, sweaty profusely. ”Sure could use one. What, after the--”
”Oye, tonto, no sabes que estamos en huelga.”
”Yeah, man, like he say. Don't you know we're on strike?” adds Fredi. The sound of his pronouncement suddenly has a ring of importance. Fredi doesn't know why but his back straightens.
”And also, man, you don't give me my change last night,” says Jake. ”So use it to buy beer.”
”C'mon, just one.”
”You got anything to--” Jake is about to say, trade.
”Man, I never hear un camarero beg,” says Fredi. ”Just get you one. Who’s gonna know?”
Huey fiddles with the apron string, a garment you can scarcely see for his belly. ”C'mon?”
As Fredi reaches into his pocket, Jake swears in Spanish, telling him not to do it.
”Man, it's only one, and I will bet him for it. OK, Huey?” Fredi slides a quarter to Huey.
When Huey nods Fredi smiles, too broadly just for the likes of a plain quarter. No, he has the feel. In this world there is nothing like it: a broad under him, a bottle at his lips, a flush in his hands. Nothing! Nunca! Compared to the feel, the luxury of $50 dollars in your pocket. Generosity comes cheap, love cheaper. An inch or two added to your height. Which doesn't make you bigger or taller. No one cares what size you are. They only want to know how important you are. Whether anyone knows it or not, Fredi is someone to reckon with.
Not that he ever intends to cut Jake out of the $50 Cano gave him; it's just that this green feels better than crank or shank or crack or smack. Ain't no weed softer than this. Before him any man would surrender any product or service without profanity or calamity. It's just that sweet.
Jake cautions, ”Fredi, he drinks more than we do, and we pay for it.”
Fredi smiles with a nod. ”Pues, pues, if he pays--But then it is your idea to come.”
Huey hustles back with a deck of cards. He flicks it, shuffles and splays all fifty-two.
Jake raises a hand to stop the game. ”First me and Owlman pick for the trip to the other end.”
Fredi slides his thumb across the tips of his right fingers as if he means to file them. He installs a stiff index finger atop a card and slides it out. He quickly scoops it to conceal its value.
Jake watches intently, hoping to see Fredi rub his right ear lobe, a sure sign he has a high card. When Fredi fails to make the gesture, Jake knows he has won. He picks the Queen of Spades.
Fredi flicks his card back on the deck. ”Man, you always win Tricia.”
”No, my friend, she always wins.”
”Venga, cabron, Bete alli. Get going, asshole.”
”Hey, Senor Regal,” says Huey, ”how about one for me?”
Fredi taps the deck and Huey shuffles expertly, flattens and spreads the cards. With a nod that loosens beads of sweat from his brow, he indicates Fredi should pick.
Fredi lets his fingertips dance over the diamond patterned cards. All at once he plunks down on one: Ten of Clubs.
Scarcely has Fredi finished turning his over when Huey lifts the King of Hearts.
”Shit!” He adds another quarter to the one on the bar. ”Hey, man, I need to practice.”
While pulling the drafts, the bartender asks, ”Practice what?”
”Well, I think I should know English good when I am--I am--Well, when I am the big motherfucker, the king of the hens. You know, with my claws. So I need to practice the English. Let's suppose I am the king of the yard. What would I say? Like, oye, bitch, ven aca. C'mere. The man wants to fuck.”
Huey pipes all eight ounces down in a swallow. ”No, man, I'd say--You're the cock of the walk, right?”
Fredi nods eagerly.
”I'd say, Ma'am, the King requests your presence for a regal fucking.”
”The King requests your presence for a--”
”In his royal chambers.”
”Yeah! In his royal chambers.” He stares off, considering the richness of the statement. Eventually he nods in appreciation. ”Yeah, that's it, man. The royal fucking chamber.”
”Buy me another,” says Huey, ”and I'll tell you something more important than that, ole cock of the roost.”
”What's that?”
”A beer?”
Fredi shakes his head. ”I never see no bartender beg.”
”Well, you may be beggin' before much longer, son.” Huey scowls under his buzz cut. ”You ain't heard, but they're bringing in niggers and paying 'em 35 cents a bucket.”
The remark conjures up the camp at Belle Glade where he learned what the mosquitoes already knew: come at dusk for that is when the blood rises, where he understood that the only bloodletting that made any sense was the bite of the mosquito. Other than that, there was only the soulless transfer of fluids: sweat and sperm; drink and piss, and the blood and--well, there was no relation to anything else. Just more blood.
The memory envelopes him as he watches migrants pour their piss or shit in the ditches that run in front of the shacks. He remembers how the black men glistened and how his mother serviced them, getting their chits. And how the women, some in pigtails tied in white rags, came to see the white boy whose mother collected their chits.
Fredi shuffles the deck of cards. ”Does it mean we get 35 cents?”
”Your Highness, my dear royal friend, that means you are out of a job. This strike was--”
”I know nothing about this. No one never--”
”It was never about you people. It was always about bringing in the blacks. They forced your hand and you fell for it.”
”But ...” Fredi can't readily identify his concerns; they are too numerous. ”Pero, what about--Quiero decir que most of these people don't have papers and they would work for nothing.”
Huey shrugs his indifference. ”Yeah, but the niggers don't organize like you United Immigrants or whatever it is.”
All along he has mulled over the expressions of ”you people” and finally ”you United Immigrants”. The punch he releases is so quick people think Huey has had a spell.
He yells to Jake, the noise bringing attention to him and by extension the fallen bartender. ”Tenemos que ir. Da de prisa.”
”What you people think?” asks Fredi waiting impatiently on his friend. ”It is like all of once--”
When finally back on the street, Jake complains, ”Man, she was all teeth tonight.”
”Teeth, motherfucker,” he shouts. ”I give you teeth.” He relays the news.
The advent of blacks doesn't necessarily alter their situation, says Jake. For no matter how many blacks Cano recruited, none know how to crab-crawl with greedy hands, none know how to make the legs long in the race to the truck, none understand that they are not picking tomatoes. However they have abused Cano and he them, they still need each other.
”But the others? He take just two? You and me?”
”He take what makes him money.”
”And two negroes for me and two for you?”
At least Jake relents. ”Man, we will just have to see what happens.”
Fredi says, ”But what about that machine? If it isn't the blacks, it is the machine.”
Jake shrugs.

There is a moment of silence before Fredi says, ”I know now. This is what we do. We buy a truck.” He concludes as if the statement requires no further explanation.
Jake walks on, waiting. Finally unable to contain himself, he asks, ”A truck?”
”Si.”
Again there is no immediate clarification. ”Digame porque un pinche truck?”
”A four wheel and maybe one with a camper on the back.”
”A camper?” explodes Jake.
”Si, si, si. Un camper. That's what we start.”
”Start what, imbecil?”
”We're gonna be like Cano. He start with a truck and now see where he is. He is maybe the richest man in Florida.”
Jake slams a stiff-arm into his chest. ”So you want to be like that pig?”
”Calmate, hombre. A mi, no me importa. It's only money. Shit, if I have the money, I give it away. One beer at a time.” He frowns. ”I don't know. I think it is too confusing with so much money. But then if you don't have the money--”
Jake shouts, ”Alfredo, what are you talking about? First the owls, then the stupid Chivas, and now a fucking truck? What? Get a fucking truck so we can--can--”
”I don't know, man. I am just talking. Let us tell Angel and see what he does.”
”Angel? Your friend?”
”Tranquilo, hombre. Nada pasa con el. Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen.”
*****
At the apartment they walk in single file up the stairwell, Jake in the lead. Animated as their conversation is, it is silenced by the absence of the brassy tones of a polka coming from Angel's boom box. Jake takes the steps two at a time. Fredi meanders. When he reaches the turn to the second floor, a man, slick as a spider in its web, drops down from the dark and strikes him.
The instant Angel's weight jars him, Fredi throws himself back into the wall, lest he fall and have Angel on top of him. Because the light in the stairwell is dead, Fredi doesn't immediately recognize the seven-inch screwdriver. No knife, but just as effective in a jab.
The credit for Angel being nearly weaponless goes to Jake. Days ago he had the foresight to hire the 10-year-old nuisance who sometimes lives downstairs with Pariente to clip all of Angel's weapons. Three long knives, but no handgun, to Jake's surprise.
It isn't until the third thrust that Fredi realizes the assailant has a tool, not a knife. Nevertheless, he keeps a distance, shuffling and swaying, waiting for the chance to grab the screwdriver and launch a fist with his free hand.
As they circle, Angel shouts and spits. Fredi speaks softly, using his best English because he knows it confuses the man. Dark though it is, Angel's face glistens with sweat. Fredi wants to smile but refrains lest he lose the lock he has on his opponent's eyes. Seeing them waiver and sometimes blink encourages him.
From the top of the steps Jake calls out instructions on how to feint and parry, useless remarks because the combatants only circle as if locked in a peculiar inertia that takes enormous strength and unbridled courage to break.
What little commotion there is suffices to bring out pickers from both floors. At long last the rumored killing has commenced.
It is difficult to say who the aggressor is, for while Fredi doesn't charge or challenge, Angel keeps moving upward. With each step he takes, the crowd advances, intensifying the betting and chanting one name or the other depending upon whom they have wagered.
All the noise brings out the black man who lives beside Jake and Fredi. He is a man of considerably means, given his color television, upholstered furniture and surround stereo. Many a night Jake has caught Fredi peeking into his window in awe, except for that one night when Fredi saw the family sitting down at the dinner table. He exclaimed it was as if they were on TV and laughed, ”Man, no one is like that.”
The black man has a baseball bat. His voice is very deep and his shout carries. Only Jake pays attention. He puts his finger to his lips to signal silence. The gesture paralyzes the man, and in an instant Jake has the bat. With his finger still on his lips, he backpedals into the crowd.
By now the fight nears the second floor landing. Jake takes a practice swing to stretch the crowd. The warm-ups over, he delivers one swift blow. It is finished. Angel falls heavily. Within seconds his blood puddles about him. Fredi strikes his Mighty Mouse pose. He shakes his head in disbelief at how much Angel's head sounded like a melon when cracked.
There is no time for triumph, as the black man hollers out his intention to call the police. ”I've done had enough of you goddamn Mexicans, drunk all the time, fightin' all the time, playing that goddamn music all the time.” He storms into his apartment.
As quickly as the crowd gathered, it disperses. Everyone understands the many meanings of police.
No one dares to confront Jake and Fredi when they race to their room. As a rule, men keep what they own packed and ready to go. Seldom does one see articles of clothing or such items as a radio unattended. Unlike Fredi whose belongings fit nicely into a small canvas bag, Jake has a steamer trunk, in which he keeps clothes, grooming and cooking utensils, dry goods, tools, sleeping bag and a boom box. Jake keeps it locked at all times. Not that he distrusts Fredi, but he knows his friend is careless and assigns little importance to such necessities. Locked or not, the trunk slows their exit. Each grabs an end and crab-crawls.
On the stairs Fredi stops to kick the unconscious Angel. Jake, grunting with the downhill side of the load, orders him to stop. In the parking lot, they gasp for air, unsure which way to go. A siren coming from the east sets their course. Jake hoists the trunk onto his right shoulder and runs as best he can. Fredi is out in front. At the first intersection he veers into a residential section. About mid block he spots two bicycles haphazardly discarded in the yard. No dog barks as he creeps onto the property. He fits each onto a shoulder and quietly makes his way back to the dark. By this time Jake has arrived, breathless and wet. Without any discussion, they recognize that Jake needs the larger one so he can at least balance the trunk on the bar between the seat and handlebars and run alongside.
They work their way west and then north, keeping to the edges of the subdivisions. After an hour of slow progress, Jake realizes where they are headed--Ana's.
Ana is a young Mexican Jake met when he first came to Homestead. A single mother, she works as a social worker for Organized Migrants in Community Action (OMICA), detailed to a supervisory role at the Everglades Camp. Within its expanse the camp has 168 single-wide trailers. Her problem focuses on the fact that 233 families live there.
As a child, Ana went from one crop to the next. Like others, she dreamed of nothing so much as getting out, making a clean break. She was desperate to settle into this story-book life she saw from the roadway. At the supermercados she plunged into the magazine rack to study the latest clothing fashions and housing trends; groceries were an afterthought. When in the camps she reflected on the fences with their barbed wire tops, she looked at the open gates and wondered why no one dared breach them.
One day, in an escape from a drunken man, she ran out of the camp, ran past her fears, almost outdistanced her desires. She found work quickly. Manpower trained her as a bilingual secretary. After a few months at her first office, she had a car. A year later she moved into a house. The professional image she projected when visiting relatives at the camp did not go unnoticed. OMICA called and she turned them down. Two days later OMICA called and she listened, then turned them down. A week passed before OMICA called. She negotiated an additional $1,500 and accepted.
It was at the Everglades Camp that Jake appeared one evening. He caught her double-take of him and was that much more surprised when she said rudely that he would have to wait until morning to be processed. The next day she found him sleeping under the office steps. She stood over him and kicked him. When he opened his eyes he saw a breeze-filled skirt. Ana made no attempt to gather it in.
Ana is light skinned with American styled black hair and mountain brown eyes. She is ten years older than Jake, but her body is as firm as his. He smiles in admiration and respect at how her breast stand high and how she cups them when mounting him. She housed Jake for two weeks and got him a job with a reputable crew leader. It ended in tears and protestations after Ana found Jake with her 13-year-old daughter. At the time Jake couldn't resist the depth of the child's brown skin.
”Why she take us?” asks Fredi.
”Because.”
”But you tell me how you--”
”Chinga, hombre, she will.”
He keeps repeating the phrase, she will, as they approach. The house is one-story, neatly shingled and shuttered. It is 3 a.m. Not even the neighborhood dogs stir when the bell rings. They cringe at how loud it sounds. While they wait neither dare hit the button a second time. As the outdoor lights flicker, Jake rehearses his greeting. Into a crack in the front door, he whispers, ”Ana, we're in trouble.” When there is no immediate response he adds, ”Please.”
There is a long moment before she unlatches the chain.
That night there is little discussion. She takes her daughter, Soledad, into her room. Walls separate everyone.
The next day Jake and Fredi awake on the living room floor long after Ana and Soledad have left. Fredi sits transported by the cartoons on the television. Jake dozes fitfully, not at all accustom to spending this much sunlight. The guilt he feels is overlaid with memories of watching re-runs of Condorito, the funniest bird-man that ever lived.
At last he sits up and smiles to himself. ”I had an uncle who bought a TV. And the bastard charged us to watch it. No discounts for family. No, senor, it wouldn't be fair to the rest. Everyone paid to watch what he wanted to watch.” His smile broadens. ”Pues, no es como ahora con estaciones por los milliones. I think we--there was maybe two stations to choose from. Two, maybe three. Who knows when he was the one with the controls.”
”Two is better--”
”Man, we paid for that fucking television,” shouts Fredi in a voice whose anger seems out of proportion to the circumstances.
”But you--”
”But nothing,” he says, iced by the assembling notions that they have to devise a plan to collect what Cano owes them, concoct a scheme that will not involve the police or include Angel's friends.
”But--”
”But what now, cabron? You ready to let Cano keep what is ours?”
Fredi pauses to think. ”Remember how I use to tell you how he came into my room with una joven and he'd kick me out?” Jake nods passively. ”Well, why don't we set him up? Wait in the room for the time when he comes in with one of his children?”
Jake falls back onto his pallet. A massaging hand over his eyes, he calls out, ”And just how are we going to go back there? Remember Angel?”
”Oh, I--”
”You forgot you had your little fight.”
”Well, it wasn't me who squished the head. Man, did that sound like a melon?”
Jake ignores him. ”So now what?”
”Man, I love this Porkie the Pig.” He swings back to the television at the sound of the cartoon pig. He tries to imitate the stutter. ”Dah-dah-dah's all fooks.”
”Oye, cabron. What makes you think you can speak the funnies, when you can't speak Spanish or English very well?”
”Puedo hablar Engles major que tu. I can speak English better than you.”
There is a strain in his voice that Jake recognizes but disregards. ”OK, genio, why did you speak Spanish just then if your English is so good?”
”Did not,” fires back Fredi in English.
”Man, do you even know what you say?” He adds against his better judgment. ”I bet you dream in the language of those niggers at Belle Glade.”
They are locked in a less than friendly wrestling match when Ana and Soledad return. Their peeves vanish, and they come to attention, military-style. Ana scans the overturned furniture and tossed pillows. Without so much as a word spoken, the two set out to restore order.
In no uncertain terms Ana directs her daughter to her room to do homework. She faces Jake as she delivers the order. He does not dare look at the woman-child. Fredi finishes straightening and stands at ease. Ana cocks a finger at him instructing him to shower and shave. She admonishes him not to stray, lest she harm him. ”And you can ask this son-of-a-bitch if I won't.”
Jake nods, not so much in agreement as in servitude.
In the kitchen, Ana asks who the anglo is.
”Alfredo Rodriguez. He is--I don't know what he is, but he was born here. He lives here without molestations.”
She scoffs but moves to the next subject. ”And who are you now, three months and two days after you fucked my daughter?”
”I remain Juan Antonio Escobar from the town of San Miguel Aleman. Ademas, I remain deeply sorry for what I did. I am older, not in time but in lessons learned. If I were living with you today, what happened before would not happen now. I am not wiser now, I only understand better. Trouble is trouble. It no longer has a disguise. I apologize for what I did, and I am learning how to apologize never again.”
Ana stiffens. There are sparks in her silence. The two watch the grocery bag Ana is unpacking.
At length she says, ”He is very good looking.”
”Who?”
”That shit you brought with you.”
”He's Puerto Rican.” He adds, ”Mostly.”
She laughs hard. ”You fool, he's American. At his worst he is better than us.”
Jake's inquiry appears on his lined face. ”I do not think so. Fredi certainly does not think so. So why do you think so?”
She pulls her response from the bottom of the grocery bag: a six pack of Tecate. She gives one to him and takes one for herself.

*****
At Ana's prompting Jake explains the circumstances that brought them here: how he had fallen in with Cano after a drunken night in a discoteca, how he had met Fredi just as he faced the fight of his life in the same discoteca.
”Cano?” spits Ana.
”I had no choice.”
She nods as if to say she knows how it happens. She sips her beer. After a long while she says, ”We took in a man, a Julio Ruisanchez. I don't know how, but he lost his leg. A truck, a machine, whatever. It doesn't matter. Cano let him go. He has three children and a wife and a mother. And Cano put them out. We took them in. Cano had just left them at the fence. The bastard just left them.”
”Well, at least he took them somewhere. He left my friend to die in the street.”
”The pendejo took the food in the refrigerator.” She falls silent, her breathing uneven. She sips the beer. ”Tell me, what kind of man is this?”
”He is no man. A man without a soul.”
”Where does Cano put you?”
”I don't know the name of the street. It is across from a vacant lot. Three roads from the main road.”
”Was there a girl there named Christina?”
”No, only Cano's people.”
”She is fat, a very fat woman with bleached blonde hair.”
”La Gordita?” he asks, trying to reign in the exclamation.
Ana's expression makes him regret he ever acknowledged the woman. ”So you know her?”
”Well, we know--Quiero decir, I mean saw her with Angel,” he says contritely. ”One night she showed up with Angel. Where he found her I don't know. They were both very drunk. It was clear what they intended to do. Por lo menos, what he wanted to do and if the truth be told, he probably didn't. But they stood there in front of us. And then all at once she said, I don't care anymore.” He breathed a laugh more than allowed one to exit freely. ”I was strange. For some reason I thought of Christ on the cross.” He shakes his head and breathes another laugh. ”It was strange. Such a sad, sad woman.”
”And when was the last time you saw her?”
”She came one more time. She had been beaten. She was drunk then too.”
”Cano has sold her.”
Near anger, Jake says, ”What do you mean, sold?”
”Like a bottle of whiskey, a bag of marijuana. She is now the property of four men in the camp.” Before he can ask, she continues, ”The association is trying to get them evicted. But there are rules and regulations about eviction. Until we have a hearing they remain there and she with them.”
They are quiet. Jake finishes his beer. Twirling the can, he says, ”Believe it or not, Fredi's mother--she was never sold but she was bought ever night. Sometimes Fredi was bought and he only a boy.” Lest she reach a wrong conclusion, he quickly adds, ”By women, bought by women.” With the slightest of karate-chops he topples the can. He rolls it between extended hands. At length he leaves off and turns sideways on the vinyl chair. He gazes out a shut window that looks out on nothing. There is an enclosed porch beyond it. When Jake had lived here he asked Ana to move the refrigerator over to cover the window.
Jake tilts his head back against the wall. The ceiling, the walls, are painted in the same flat green used at the camp. He blows his cheeks up with air, holds it for a moment and then slowly releases it through the right side of his twisted mouth. He looks down at the floor and knows the area rug covers a gash in the linoleum.
Even as he stares at the rug, he asks, ”Why do you stay? You speak English. You have papers, you have a car, you look white, and you are beautiful. You could go anywhere. Why do you stay?”
Ana has been watching the can roll. She doesn't answer immediately and when she does it comes in a form of a listless shrug. ”Ni idea.” She mutters something else to herself and then stands, smoothing the front of her floral print dress.
She leans over and kisses his cheek. “Sometimes I think I miss you
Only sometimes.” Without waiting for a reply, she steps to the counter beside the sink to prepare dinner: fried pork chops, instant rice and refried beans.
While she cooks Jake asks if she will go to Cano to collect their wages. His argument is simple: the crew leader would call the police on them but not on her.
”But he'll know you're here,” she says.
”He already knows. It must be that he knows you know about the slave woman. He will stay away. You are second in line to the police.” After a moment he asks, ”How much does a woman costs?”
There is no answer. Ana hands him a beer with the admonition that it is the last of the night.
The following day it is all Jake can do to keep Fredi from visiting the mall. Thankfully the television offers enough diversion to restrain him. A venture outside, however brief, is a danger what with Cano's men idled by the strike and probably on paid patrol. Fredi sits a few feet from the screen. During the commercials he inhales deeply as he surveys the room: two colorful sofas, a reclining chair, polished wood tables with magazines casually scattered, shaggy carpet, gilded mirrors and framed paintings. This is what a home is like, he tells himself; this is a place to which you can belong. He smiles and resumes his viewing.
Meanwhile, Jake cleans the house and does laundry. Later in the afternoon he assesses their financial situation, concluding that with what Cano owes them they have enough to live for two weeks, two very, very short weeks.
The moment Ana enters the house Jake sees that there is trouble. When angry, she pinches her mouth to the point of deep wrinkles. She completely ignores Fredi at the TV and marches into the kitchen. Jake is deliberately slow to look up from his calculations. Before he can say a word, she hurls a ball of bills at him. The wad opens as a parachute. Fives and tens drift to the floor.
”Guess what?” she says in English. ”Your friend Cano deducted for Christina. Fifty dollars, twenty-five each. How many times did you two have her?”
At first Jake doesn't understand who Christina is. He stammers, ”Have who?”
”La Gordita, you asshole.”
”But we never--”
”Get out. Get out now.”
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