Jack looked down at his watch. “Shit, only ten-thirty. Six hours to go,” he thought. It was over a hundred degrees already. There wasn’t a cloud in the broad, blue, desert sky. Translucent waves of heat rose from the parched brown hills, the languid river and the barren scablands appear as if seen through a clear vinyl shower curtain or someone else’s glasses. Rattlesnake Mountain, Jump-Off Joe and the other distant hills looked like sleeping Brontosauruses, just as they had when he was a kid, with smooth gray sloping backs and necks and their heads resting in the sand, dozing in the sun. “At least we have a job.”
Ray and Billy worked to Jack’s left across the gently sloping and furrowed field, one man and one shovel per row. They moved slowly and reluctantly, sweating in the heat and the ever-present sun. Their task was simple: dig a hole, about sixteen inches deep and a foot in diameter, take two steps forward to the next blue chalk mark, then dig another hole. Six in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon. A half hour for lunch and no other breaks. Two dollars and ten cents an hour. Good pay for students and dropouts. In the coming weeks, these same holes would be filled with a variety of grape plants, and possibly, in five or more years’ time, this barren desert would produce Washington State wine, something the world hadn’t seen before. Billy Newsome knew the foreman for the vineyard project and had set the group up with work for the summer.
Jack was bored and made conversation to pass the time.
“Hey Billy, tell me that cracker’s name again.” he hollered to his sweating friend. It was their first week on this job.
“Jimmy. He never told us his last name.” Ray shouted back, pre-empting Billy’s reply. “Fuckin’ knuckle-dragger from Tennessee. Check out his teeth, man. Nothin’ but gaps and caps. What a shit-stick. He’s gotta have a ‘Bob’ or a ‘Lester’ or a ‘Leroy’ in there somewhere.”
Ray James was fearless and rarely backed down from a confrontation. He would stand, facing an adversary in an argument about Vietnam or Charley Parker or the CIA, thumbs in his pockets, his chest thrust forward assertively, looking straight at his opponent, quoting Pete Townsend or Dizzy Gillespie or Eldridge Cleaver in order to add authority to his position. He relished intellectual warfare and commanded a mental bunkerful of facts that he launched like conversational napalm.
“Git them fuckin’ shovels in the ground, you lazy caaack-suckers” Jimmy bellowed from his perch on the roof of his old gray Chevy pickup. “Cacksucker” was Jimmy’s very own expression. Jimmy was the supervisor of the hole-digging crew made up of two college students, one dropout and forty Hispanic farm workers, and his word was the law. He carried a four-foot long, two-by-two grape stake in one hand that he slapped against his boot as he paced and shouted and smoked. His face was knife-scarred, his shoulders were covered with tattoos, and the spaces between his teeth and the wiry belligerence of his stance told of being beaten senseless enough times to not fear pain. His eyes had that dim, blank, alert stare of a coyote or a rabid dog or a convict.
Jack muttered, “That guy’s dumber than a fuckin’ manhole cover and strong as a horse. I bet his ole daddy used to back the truck into him when he was a baby, just to toughen him up.”
Spread out a hundred yards across the slope to his right, several dozen black-haired and brown-skinned men and women talked quietly as they worked. They moved effortlessly and much faster than Jack and his friends. Some of the men wore clean, long-sleeved western shirts, pressed jeans and cowboy boots. The women’s shoe-length, brightly colored dresses and long-sleeved blouses added contrast to the monochromatic landscape. Men and women alike wore broad-brimmed straw hats. They kept mostly to themselves and stayed away from Jimmy. A low melodic murmur of Spanish words and songs and laughter followed them as they moved through the field.
“The college boys” as Jimmy called them, hadn’t yet learned the secrets of dressing for desert survival, despite growing up here: Jack wore a ball cap, with nothing to cover his ears or neck. Ray sported a Grateful Dead t-shirt, full of holes. Billy had taken his shirt off, evidently planning to catch a tan. They all wore cut-off jeans, sneakers and no socks, unaware of rattlesnakes or melanoma.
Sometimes Jack noticed the women looking over his way, their heads together, covering their mouths as they laughed. He thought, “It sure isn’t because they want to party with us. They must think we’re pussies.”
The men who spoke English gently teased:
“Hey heepies! Do you like our beach?”
“Are you gringos going to smoke your little smoke now? Don’t you know it will make you loco?”
Then they would laugh. Their smiles and the musicality of their words conveyed gentle teasing, not hostility or a threat. Teasing was just a way to make friends, to share the work, to get by less painfully in the heat.
“Why do you sweat so much, amigos?”
Jack thought that, from the air, this sight would have evoked Mississippi or the San Joaquin Valley more than Washington: The line of laborers, bent over their shovels, leading a slow-motion charge against an invisible foe, as the hot, dry breezes carried off shovel-sized clouds of dust. The human figures would barely be discernible from this height: insignificant and vulnerable, baking in the sun. Tiny faceless workers crawling across twenty thousand acres of brown, barren, reclaimed desert, while the cool, sleepy Columbia lay stymied and impotent a mile away. Beyond the river, a thousand square miles of sand, sagebrush, rattlesnakes and jackrabbits stretched off toward the Cascades in the unforgiving heat. A hostile solar oven for as far as the eye could see, burning up everything in its reach.
Ray said, “So I heard this deal is run by a bunch of rich investment suits from Seattle or California. They think they’re gonna grow wine grapes out here and cash in, big time. Corporate dudes. We’ll never see ‘em out here you gotta know. It’s what’s happening with all the farms now, everywhere, man. Corporate agribusiness putting the little family farmers out on the street and replacing them with these monstrous operations that hire rejects like Jimmy and us and the Mexicans. ‘Backuss Corporation’ or something like that? You ever heard of them? Who are these fuckers?”
Billy couldn’t hold back: “That’s Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It’s a good name for a wine company. It’s a real estate guy from LA named Hanson and one of the owners of the Seattle Times.” Billy had actually attended classes in school and had aspirations of owning a business after college. He knew his mythology. “Chances are they have their distribution and marketing all worked out and now they just gotta grow some grapes and squish ‘em.”
“Yeah, but all these guys out here say “Backuss”, so don’t be a fuckin’ dipshit, Billy. Jimmy’d love to take you down to the river and show you his special little Tennessee thing for bein’ such a smartass.” Jack warned.
The manic scream and whine of a fully wound up American truck bouncing over the farm roads suddenly pierced the calm desert stillness. Jimmy shoved his filthy fingers into his mouth, from up on top of his truck, and blew three ear-splitting whistle-blasts, startling everyone.
Jack’s skin crawled at the menacing bang and rattle of the big, out-of-control rig hurtling over the potholes and ruts.
“Somebody probably went to sleep at the wheel,” Billy decided.
“Or the throttle’s stuck. I’ve had that happen to me on the Mustang.” Ray said. “It’s probably a fucking Ford.”
The three dropped their shovels and moved back up the hill to get a better view and to enjoy the sweet respite this diversion offered. The pale green four-wheel-drive Ford van with the round Immigration and Naturalization Service seal on the side door left the ground as it crested the hill, slammed back onto the road and barreled downhill, toward one of the many ravines that led to the Columbia, with a long, dusty rooster tail rising from its tracks. The van disappeared into one of the folds in the land that funneled to the river like a wrinkle on a wheat farmer’s face.
He looked back along the line of workers and saw that a quarter of the group had vanished with their shovels, leaving no trace, other than ten neat rows of holes. The rest of the farm workers had continued to work, their heads lowered, chatting as if nothing had happened.
“Y’all git back to work, now. There’s nothin’ to look at.” Jimmy shouted at the four of them, whacking his stick on the side of the Chevy. “Fuckin’ long-hairs! Git them fuckin’ shovels in the ground, you caaaack-suckers.”
The lunch break finally came. Jack and the others had brought brown paper sacks they’d let sit in the sun all morning. Peanut butter had turned rancid. Cheese and mayonnaise were inedible. Bananas oozed brown and slimy. In time, the boys would need to learn what not to bring to eat. They took the thirty-minute rest sitting and lying in the dirt. There were no trees nearby. They quickly ate what they could salvage and tried to nap.
Jack fell asleep and dreamed his dad came down to the water just in time to rescue him from drowning after he’d fallen into the fast-moving river. The woman he had known since he was a baby sat in the mud, holding his hands in hers, her ebony on his white, cradling his head in her arms and looking off across the wide river, tears running down her beautiful black cheeks.
The larger group sat together in a circle, talking and laughing quietly while they ate and relaxed. A small fire popped and crackled in their midst, warming beans and tortillas and chiles wrapped in tinfoil.
The dusty green INS van had raced off, before lunch, empty. The driver and passenger both wore green government-issue caps and wire-rimmed, aviator sunglasses with mirrored lenses. They slowed the van as they drove off and they stared solemnly and carefully at the group of laborers. Jimmy whistled again when the van was gone and the crew reassembled, with the missing workers climbing back up the hill from down below the field, emerging from a brush-choked fold in the land that filled with muddy water during the rare summer cloudburst, washing soil and small bushes down to the slow-moving river and out west toward Portland and the Pacific.
In the evenings, after driving back into town from east of Pasco packed into Ray’s ’65 Mustang, the three friends gathered, usually at Jack’s mother’s place up by the golf course on Yelm Street. His dad had left in 1968 and his mom didn’t pay much attention to what he did or whom he spent time with, so they laid back in lawn chairs in the yard, each of them with their own quart of Miller High Life, as they passed a small, brass pipe around the close circle and absent-mindedly discussed the day and whatever else crossed their minds.
By seven, the desert had finally cooled off to eighty-five degrees. A warm, dry breeze drifted through the neighborhood, quietly rustling the leaves on the maple and sycamore trees like pages from a book left open or sheets of origami paper set loose. Miraculously, moisture rose from the ground at sunset, a cooling gift from the desert. Maybe there was a natural wisdom or deception at work here: the grass held the water tightly during the heat of the day, but was tricked into relaxing its hold at dusk.
At this northern latitude, the summer sky remained light until after ten, slowly and imperceptibly darkening from turquoise to cobalt blue to a deep navy-black. Every so often the aurora borealis could be seen to the north.
Jack felt limber and strong, glowing from the inside with the rejuvenating heat of a day’s hard work in the sun, now happily behind him. A hot shower, a clean t-shirt and a sandwich were all the sedative he needed to fully settle into the evening. If he had worries about what next fall would bring, tonight was no time to indulge them. He’d done poorly for two years in school and knew he was wasting his time. “Five grand a year is too much to pay to eat acid and go to demonstrations,” he reflected. “Maybe I should go to California. I’ll figure that out tomorrow.”
Ray James draped himself in a chair in the clothes he’d worn all day. Home wasn’t a place he relished going. His dad drank heavily and beat his mother, so he would come home with Jack often. On more than one occasion he had intervened and laid his old man out cold, once sending him to Kennewick General with a concussion. Ray’s dad took it out on his mother when Ray was gone.
The Cherokee blood in Ray produced lovely, waist-length, jet-black hair that contrasted with his pale, beardless complexion and professorial speaking style and black-framed glasses. Ray was smart, philosophical, inquisitive, and destined for jail. He’d tried and failed at college, then worked construction jobs and sold dope in the local area. Ray was likable and handsome and attracted women easily with his relaxed and somewhat mysterious sensuality. He’d had amorous conquests reaching back to fifth grade, long before the others became romantically active.
Ray had walked a dangerous path in his young life. He’d broken into The Angus Village Tavern in ‘65, boosting what teenage mythology set at seventy-five cases of hard liquor. This cache provided a seven-year revenue stream for him and his accomplices. Now Ray lived the hippie ethic: He borrowed Jacks first backpack the year before to use while he hitch-hiked to a rock music festival on the coast, and he’d lost it or left it with fellow road wanderers. Jack was furious. Ray’s only counsel was, “Man, we need to not be so attached to things, you know? Let it go, huh? Be cool.”
Billy Newsome had been friendly with this group for years, but his situation was quite different from the rest. His parents were still together and his family life was something he loved and was proud of, which was becoming increasingly uncommon these days. Both his parents worked for contractors at Hanford and they provided well for their three kids. They were active in the Lutheran Church and the Chamber of Commerce and took family vacations together. Billy’s family had solid and self-sufficient Montana roots, and there was always a project going on at home, whether canning preserves, planting beans, over-hauling one of an endless stream of older Chevy’s, preparing for a piano recital, or putting an addition onto the house.
Billy had been a top student, despite a formidable party schedule, and he was properly awarded scholarships and scholastic honors. He’d been a class leader, a musician, had traveled abroad and was the first to speak at his high school graduation. But his good fortune and family support and the higher odds of his success didn’t deter him from befriending dropouts and criminals and drug heads as well as jocks and nerds and cheerleaders, just so long as they could hold up their end of a good conversation. Billy liked people and didn’t by nature discriminate.
Jack admired Billy and envied his family and the effect it had on Billy’s confidence. He felt personally adrift by comparison, knowing that if he were to survive, he’d have to invent himself.
“This corporate wine thing is no good, man. We need to burn these clowns somehow.” Ray was getting worked up into a revolutionary lather, a product of the beer and the hashish and his sincere sense of justice. “I mean, look at the Mexicans they’re bringin’ up here to dig holes and plant grapes. And you know they’re payin’ these guys shit, less than us for sure, even though they’re faster than we are. These people have kids, they’re two thousand miles from home, and some ex-con from the South is tellin’ them what to do and treatin’ them like shit. And they can be deported any time. It’s fucked up, man.”
Jack had his own ideals and felt he was part of the wrenching changes going on in the country, but always sought a degree of balance. “Hey, that’s real convenient for you, man. Your dad works for who? General Electric? What do they make? I’m sure you’ll be right in there with these guys when the van comes again like it did today. I’m sure you’ll jump right up and head to Chihuahua with your new compadres.” Ray and Jack were close enough they could push each other further than others could. Jack had been part of the restaurant heist with Ray. “You are fucking Pancho James, eh? El Rey Villa! Viva El Rey! My Dad engineers triggers for hydrogen bombs but I am here to liberate your fucking squalid, third world country! Perfect, man.”
Billy wanted to keep things accurate and offered, “Everyone on our crew’s not Mexican either. I talked with three guys from Guatemala and a cute girl from El Salvador today. She’s a babe. Can you even imagine what it’s like to truck all that way to dig holes in the desert? Their life back home must really suck. Among all those forty people, I think there’s maybe six cars, and some of those guys just crash out there at night, somewhere off of Road 60. I don’t think any of us can relate. I think we can sympathize, but we’ve got no idea how hard that is. Imagine doing all the shitty work the gringos don’t want to do then having to hide and live like an animal and really be considered a criminal when it comes down to it.”
Jack came back: “Get this: We’re all white guys, mostly, except for Ray, who’s some kind of fucking hippie half-breed Indian. We have a permanent hall pass, a lifetime get-outta-jail-card, just through the luck of the birth draw. Just from bein’ white and middle class. We’re playing games talking about revolution. ‘Workers of the World Unite!’ Bullshit! ‘Privileged of The Suburbs, Go To College and Join The Firm!’ is more like it. We’re gonna give up that privilege? Even if we fuck up, so what if we get fired? We can all get another job in about an hour, and probably not one where we gotta stand in the desert all day and live in a shack and put up with a guy who sleeps in his greasy Red Man hat.”
He continued, “For example, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were in Pasco last month at the Unitarian church, raising money for the United Farm Workers. Did any of us know about it? Did we go? Did we contribute? Did we give a shit? What were we doing? We were hanging out at the fucking Outer Limits Tav, pounding Budweiser and playing pool, rolling the pussy-dice. Fair weather radicals we are, man.”
Ray sounded like he’d recalled something urgent, changing the conversation, “Hey, man, I forgot to tell you guys. I can’t drive the rest of the week. You’ll have to figure it out yourselves.”
“Well, I guess the fucking revolution’s just gonna have to wait.” Jack said sarcastically.
“What’s up? You’re bailin’ out? After one day? No wonder the cavalry kicked your lazy asses.” Billy said.
“No, man, I need to leave for a few days. I’ll be back Monday. It’s no big deal. You just have to get your own car.”
“Leave? You can’t leave. I thought your court deal was that you wouldn’t leave Benton County. Where are you going?” Billy wasn’t naïve about who his friends were, but he had never been all that comfortable with the other side of the law, except for minor alcohol and pot transgressions, which he rationalized easily. Ray enjoyed pushing his buttons.
“Do you really want to know? Come on, Billy, I’ll tell you and then when they ask you about me and you lie, you’ll be a felon too. Cool, huh? What will Gonzaga say about your scholarship then?”
Jack knew where Ray was going. In 1969, Ray had developed a keen interest in the subtle alchemy of synthesizing hallucinogens. He’d run a lucrative operation for two years, driving back and forth to Seattle where demand and prices were high. In ’72 he got caught, with a basement full of beakers and Bunsen Burners and surgical tubing and blotter paper. The arresting officers made some stupid technical errors that attracted the attention of James Mackey, a high profile civil liberties attorney from Spokane. Mackey was in the papers about once a month, defending the Black Panthers and the SDS in Seattle, Yakima Indians and their fishing rights cases, and the down-winders who were dealing with high rates of leukemia east of Hanford. The ‘70’s were ripe for ACLU attorneys. Mackey smelled notoriety and prominence in a case that could become a major constitutional test, but he still required Ray to pay his bills. He guessed that Mackey was also hip to how much cash was in drugs, and that he didn’t have to do this one pro bono. And Ray didn’t really have a choice.
Last year Ray had money problems and he left town and set up a temporary lab in Oakland and cranked out 20,000 little paper hits, with R. Crumb’s “trucking man” stamped on them, and managed to keep his legal defense alive another year. Chances are he was out of cash again but had an easy remedy.
“Brother, you are a fool. You think you got the Great Spirit keepin’ your ass out of jail no matter what you do?” Jack teased. “And why the hell are you out there anyway, diggin’ holes with us? You think you need the money? Come on, man. I don’t buy that”
“I can’t talk about this with you guys. It’ll be cool. I know what I’m doing. I’m part of a bigger drama. We’re gonna make it so we can get high without the cops fuckin’ with us, and love each other and not have to fight stupid wars and have babies and breathe clean air and eat safe food and not have to be in court every day. I’ve been reading these anarchist guys, you know, like Proudhon and Bakunin and Emma Goldman and Paul Goodman, cats like that. We don’t even have to have a government if we don’t want one. I mean, what does the government really do for us, anyway? The jackrabbits out here don’t have senators or committees or cops or presidents. They just take care of each other. They get food, they dig holes, they run around all day, they stand by their holes and they look around the desert, they sleep and they fuck. What else is there? We don’t need cops and courts and laws to keep that shit organized. Remember that thing from Ginsberg? He got up on top of Glacier Peak and all he could write down was somethin’ like ‘you mean there’s a senator for all this?’ ”
Billy couldn’t stand the over-simplification in Ray’s ideas. “I think you’re dreamin’ if you think that somehow, miraculously, everybody’s gonna get along and not steal each others’ cars and TV’s and wives and shit. Show me one place where that works, you know, sharing everything, other than in your Rabbit World. I mean, look at the GDP of Russia. Those guys are a third world country. They’re basically out of business. They’re our really big enemy and they can’t even eat. It doesn’t work. Leaders and laws and agreements and a market system make it so we can move forward.” Billy was part Milton Friedman, and part Keith Moon.
“You know, this is all real interesting, you guys, but we gotta get up at 4:30 and I’m starting to drool.” Jack’s eyes were only half open. “It’s almost nine and I’m goin’ down. Who’s gonna drive tomorrow? Billy? We know your old man has about seven cars, but they’re always fucked up, so it won’t be you. I can get my mom’s old station wagon.”
The group split up and went their separate ways, after neatly stacking the lawn chairs on the patio and cleaning up their trash. Jack’s mom insisted that, “no matter what you do, don’t leave a mess.”
The sun had set but the sky remained light enough to see clearly. To the south, toward California and Mexico, sunsets occurred abruptly, with the daylight strong and bright, then all of a sudden gone. But up here, in the summertime, twilight lasted for hours as the world slowly turned blue-gray with uncertainty and nuance, and ill-defined shadows blended into one another.
On Friday, Jack worked the early afternoon next to Luis and his wife Anna. He would look their way and smile and nod, and they replied in kind as they worked their way down the furrowed rows. Though he and his new friends did not speak each other’s languages, they managed to point and gesture and use the few words common to English and Spanish or others that they’d picked up casually. He said “mi casa” and “mi madre” and pointed south toward Kennewick to indicate where he lived. He held his hand out, toward Luis, and shrugged his shoulders while tilting his head to the side like a dog. Anna understood Jacks question and answered, “Oaxaca.”
Luis’ smile brightened at the connection and he forgot himself, rapid-firing a question back in Spanish. Jack only caught hermano, which he’d heard and could repeat.
“Hey Ray, you’re kind of a Mexican, what’s hermano mean?”
“’Brother’, my fucking brothah. Why, did you find uno hermano down there, you handsome gringo?”
He turned back to Luis and Anna and held up one finger as he said “Uno hermano…Pedro.”, and placed his palm chest high to indicate Pedro was a younger brother.
Luis put his arm around Anna and said “esposa,” which Jack was able to understand from the French he’d taken and Luis’ demonstration.
Luis and Anna were part of the small group who vanished into the ravine on Monday when the INS came. Considering their fortunes could change at any time, they seemed unconcerned. Though Jack towered over them both at six-feet four inches, Luis and Anna stood tall. Their shoulders were straight and strong. Their calm and steady gaze was disarming and gentle. They were at peace and comfortable with their fate, not defeated or resigned, but wise and accepting. Jack felt both humbled and drawn in by their presence.
The sun reached then passed its zenith, but the heat built without relief. The blinding sun and oppressive temperature brought on a giddy and child-like euphoria, and from time-to-time, Jack tossed a shovel full of dirt into one of the holes Luis had just completed. Luis retaliated, filling in several of his holes, until they both laughed and rested on their shovels. It was too hot to expend any more energy than was necessary.
“Agua?” Luis asked, and Jack pointed to the canvas bag hanging in the sun on a four-by-four post a hundred yards away, wishing it were closer. Jimmy would yell and swing his stick if it appeared his crew were loafing, or walking too far for water. Jimmy decided where the water bag hung and when the crew could go for it.
Luis looked directly at Jack, his eyes wide and mischievous and said “vamos, amigo!” as he began to dig another hole, then another, working deliberately and quickly. He turned and smiled back at Jack, who finally caught on and began to shovel faster, understanding that form and style were as important as speed in this game.
Immediately, Jack wondered, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” It had to be 110 degrees and the dust clogging his nose and eyes mixed with sweat to form a facial mudpack. Only a quarter of the way to the end of the row, he contemplated quitting, as his vision blurred. All he could see clearly were his feet and the hole in front of him. Luis was six holes ahead and working smoothly, but he could hear him panting and he could see Luis’ shirt and jeans drenched with sweat. From deep within his own delirious world, his ears ringing and his head spinning, he heard voices from behind: “Go, go, go, go!” and “Luis! Luis! Luis!” He and Luis turned to see the entire crew clapping and shouting. “Rapido!” “Come on, man, dig!”
A new surge of competitive resolve filled Jack and he re-committed himself to his task, gripping the shovel in the best spots for leverage, placing his feet wide, taking care to not back-fill his holes, lifting with his thighs and limiting his movements to save energy just like his dad had taught him when he was a kid. He slowly caught up to Luis.
The two raced down their rows, shovels smashing into the baked earth, mounds of dirt flying left and right. Now they were careful to avoid filling in each other’s holes.
Luis reached the last hole first and collapsed in the dirt. Jack followed and fell down next to him, as Luis turned and repeated,“Agua, amigo?” and smiled.
Jack understood the price of second place, and said “si, aqua,” and walked the sixty feet to retrieve the water bag. Luis would get the first drink. When he returned, the crew had come down and were congratulating Luis and laughing with each other. Billy tried to talk with the pretty young Salvadoran woman he’d met.
Once again, the loud rumble of an oncoming truck at full speed thundered toward them, this time Jimmy in his rusted out gray pickup. The rig skidded to a stop and Jimmy lurched from the cab, hollering and swearing, as dust encircled the group.
“What the FUCK are you assholes doing? Who said you could take a break? Are you fuckin’ stupid? Why aren’t you diggin’ them fuckin’ holes! Mother-fuckin’ god damn!”
Jimmy shoved Jack hard in his chest, knocking him to the ground, then grabbed his grape stake like a bat, double-handed, and wound up and cracked it into three pieces across Luis’ back.
“FUCKing beaners! You little wetback piece of shit!” Jimmy stepped forward, positioning himself to kick Luis in the stomach.
Billy flew the ten yards downhill from where he’d been standing and leapt at Jimmy, appearing to float in the air, four feet off the ground. His years of junior high wrestling made his task seem effortless and familiar. He tackled Jimmy and took him to the ground, sitting on his chest while he slammed his fists into the startled man’s mouth and eyes until Jimmy was unconscious and bloody.
The group of farm workers helped Luis to his feet and quickly ran back up the hill and resumed work. Jack stood up and pulled Billy off the bleeding man. Billy pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, dusted himself off and filled his chest as he smiled out across the great river. “Fuckin’-a right. Piece a shit, man.”
Billy sat on the hood of Jack’s mother’s ’59 Chevy wagon. They’d parked along Road 60, under a pepper tree, and were nursing the cold beers they’d bought at the Chevron station. Jack paced back and forth in the gravel, shaking his head and muttering, as he swallowed mouthfuls of beer.
“Okay, so we took a break, big deal. Shit, man. It was hot as hell. That cracker is a psycho. He didn’t need to hit Luis. He coulda really hurt him. Let’s go back. Let’s fuck him up.” Jack was still reeling, not so much from being knocked down as from the abrupt and jarring sequence of events the past hour. “Billy, you got a cigarette?” He didn’t smoke. He wasn’t much of a fighter either.
“Take it easy, man. Jimmy’s outta commission for a while. Besides, they probably called the county sheriff and he’s out looking for me.” Billy sat comfortably, looking across the potato and sugar beet fields.
“I hope Anna and Luis are okay. I don‘t think that stupid grape stick coulda hurt much and you did keep Luis from gettin’ kicked, but who knows what’ll happen now.” Jack was agitated and felt responsible. “It was my fault. I was the one who started screwin’ around. God damn. They’re just fuckin’ grape holes. But hey, man, we did some righteous shit today, huh? Where’d that come from? If Ray were here, he’d be all up in it.” Jack said, unconvinced.
“No, this was nothin’ but stupid. And guess who wasn’t here who gets to keep his job? Dude oughta be in jail. Two guys got hurt. We got fired. Who knows what’ll happen to the Mexicans. Jimmy’s a hero in Crackerville. And we might get busted. The grapes will still get planted; they’ll just get some more losers to plant ’em. This wasn’t some major event in the struggle for liberty and equality. It was bullshit. We accomplished nothing. Jimmy isn’t ‘the man’. He’s just a redneck with a four buck an hour job.” Billy had found a voice like a sword.
Jack had settled down a bit and worried about the police. “Come on, man, let’s go. We shouldn’t hang out here. Let’s git. Anyway, what are you doin’ this weekend?” Jack asked, wanting to change the subject. He relied on Billy at times like these.
“I gotta meet with the Rotary Club tomorrow to explain why I split to Ireland in October when I was supposed to be absorbing German culture. I think all I gotta do is show them some photos of Hamburg in the winter and they’ll get the idea. Fuckin’ dreary place, man. Anyway, they’ll bust my balls for an hour and then I’ll be done. What’re you doin’?”
“I’m supposed to play golf with my old man. Seems kind of bizarre after today.”
Billy started to move. “Okay, let’s go get a beer at the O.L. and think about getting another job Monday.”
As the two friends opened their car doors, a familiar mechanical rumble approached from behind, back toward the vineyards. The pale green INS van sped past, the driver sitting stoically, stiff and official, his sunglasses reflecting the setting sun, burning a path ahead into Road 60.
In the back seat, nearest the driver, Luis and Anna sat together, calmly watching the fields pass by, their arms around each other. Luis turned to them and nodded, smiling ever so slightly. He sat tall, with dignity and grace as he held Anna close.
The van disappeared over a rise in the road, heading south, toward Kennewick, Jump-Off Joe, California and Mexico. A small dust swirl rose up in its wake. The air once again became still. Dusk was still seven hours away. Two semi-trailers full of grape plants rumbled past, heading north, toward the fields.
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