I’ll admit it. I was angry when we headed out to the hoop house to harvest lettuce. I was tired of being dismissed as useless. When we got there I bee-lined towards the nearest bed. Even though Diego’d told me I should feel free to focus on weeding, I crouched down and started cutting. I heard Manuel laughing as he moved past me down the aisle.
As I cut, I felt like I had finally gotten a sense of the rhythm the crew talked about. I held the knife in my right hand and used my left to grab the plants, holding them in place as I cut. I had learned to continue down the line even after I’d cut the bunch I was holding, my hand moving like a Pac-Man head as I collected the leaves. My cuts weren’t as neat as the other harvesters’ and I left a far bigger mess behind, but I kept up with them.
The crew didn’t notice my progress until they had all finished their rows. Carlos pressed a hand to his lower back and winced, glancing around the hoop house. He paused and nudged Javier in the ribs, pointing towards my bed. The two stood for several seconds before Javier burst out laughing and grinned at me. He picked up his crates and walked away toward the flatbed, still chuckling. Carlos stared at me. I stared back. Finally, he nodding and walked away. I smiled and picked up my crates.
As I sat on the
flatbed waiting for the last of the crates to be loaded, Carlos came jogging up
to me, holding something behind his back.
He was giggling. He stopped in
front of me and held out a head of lettuce, bigger than my own head, and gave a
“Para ti,” he said. “A flower. For you.” Manuel stood behind him, watching my face. The moment seemed to carry a special significance—as if how I reacted would be a turning point in their opinions of me.
“Gracias, Carlos,” I said. I took the lettuce and held it up, pretending to tuck it behind my ear. “What do you think, should I tuck it in my hair?”
He laughed loudly and patted me on the leg. “Si, si,” he said and hopped up next to me on the flatbed.
What does a relationship have to undergo before it becomes a friendship? All normal bonds that tie one person to another—similar views, things in common, a shared language—didn’t exist. It was a summer of pantomime and helpless laughter, when the circumstantiality of words forced us to revert to an endless round of charades. Our skills were put to the test when Marcos desperately tried to describe how the better part of sixteen hundred chickens had escaped the coops and were terrorizing the turkeys. His interpretation of a berserk hen had us in hysterics, which in turn were quickly ended when we saw the mass of rogue fowl approaching from across the yard. Yet as the weeks passed we learned to read the subtler language of expression and stance. There is no pantomime for a lover’s quarrel, for the poison of shameful secrets, for the loss of an older brother. As one of us might sink under the weight of the world we discovered that our bodies knew compassion better than our tongues, that a hand on a shoulder or a smile saved for the quiet moments could give more strength than any number of words.
“What’re we doing after lunch?” I stared at Mark, trying not to laugh. He had been the last to arrive at the lunch table and by default had been left with the Bad Chair. At some point in its life, the Bad Chair had lost the defined angle between the back and the fold out seat, with the seat edge sinking until it formed more of a single downward surface from top to bottom. Mark was squatting in the nook below the chair back, causing the chair to get stuck firmly around his hips. Mark seemed unaware of the chair hanging from his butt. He leaned on the table with his head inches above his plate, elbows splayed like wings on either side. He still had a bandana tucked under his baseball cap, hanging down around his neck. When I spoke he peered out owlishly at me from under the bill of his hat. Next to me, Alex tried to smother her giggles. Evan opened his mouth but paused and shut it again after several seconds. Diego eyed Mark’s Tigger and Winnie-the-Pooh cup thoughtfully.
“You ‘n’ Aaron are gonna go out to the hoop houses,” Mark paused to eat another cube of pickled kohlrabi, “and vacuum the bugs.”
I frowned. “We’re…vacuuming bugs?”
“Yep.” He grinned. The chair bobbed. “Don’t believe me?”
“I just didn’t know that bugs were, um, vacuumable.”
He laughed. “Tell her, Diego.”
Diego grimaced. “How should I know, boss? That kinda stuff is intern work,” he winked at me. “I got better things to do with my time.”
Olivia broke in. “Basically, you have a silver canister—it’s about two feet tall, maybe a foot across—with a nozzle and you just go through the cucumber rows, vacuum up all the bugs.” She grinned. “Watch out for the really tall plants, though, the ten-footers? The bugs usually drop on you from above.”
I winced and said nothing.
In hindsight, there were several things that Mark, Olivia and Diego forgot to mention. The cucumber vines ranged from four to ten feet tall, in rows of twenty with one-foot aisles in between. The leaves—hairy and heart-shaped, with a seven inch spread at the base—hung languidly into the aisles until the rows blurred and moving through them became more of a tunneling process than a walking one. The beetles preferred to hang on the undersides of the leaves. Maybe it was just a bad time—or maybe they’re just naturally oversexed critters—but the beetles were always in mating chains, ranging from two to eight beetles per chain. When I angled the vacuum nozzle toward them the whole chain would detach from the leaf together, an invertebrate orgy whacking noisily against the tube walls all the way down.
I began my internship at the farm with a chip on my shoulder. All my life I’ve prided myself as someone who won’t give up in difficult situations, who hangs on to a challenge with bulldoggish determination until I conquer it. I went into the situation knowing that I wouldn’t be easily accepted—I was imposing myself on a culture that didn’t tolerate outsiders. My gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background were all marks against me. The fact that I go to a fine arts boarding school would only solidify the workers’ initial contempt for me. Several days in to working there, I wore a Waunakee Warriors football t-shirt, which only amplified the problem. Among the Madison suburbs Waunakee is by far the most hated: behind the wrought iron entrance gates stretch row after row of cookie-cutter mansions with unnaturally lush grass and BMWs parked in every driveway (at least the color of the cars varied somewhat—in a fit of mid-life crisis pathos, our next door neighbor rebelled and bought a neon orange model. It was gone three days later, but I think it helped her regain her bearing in life nonetheless). I’ve never felt comfortable in my hometown. I preferred to skirt the fringes and spent as much time as I could elsewhere (a habit which culminated in my enrollment at a boarding school in Michigan). But my coworkers on the farm had no way of knowing that. To them, I was juera, the white girl who wanted to play happy farmer for the summer. Yet the stereotypes were hardly one-sided; on the way home after my interview I was describing my experiences working in the fields to my mother. She asked me if I had felt comfortable, working alone with a crew of Mexican men. My grandpa, when hearing the interview story second-hand from her, asked the same question. As I grew to love the farm and the people who worked there I felt more torn than ever. I felt as if I was slipping from the cover of the expectations placed on me and as a result I was erasing an identity. Time passed. Eventually, juera became a term of affection, the sound of a knowing smile from a friend, the intimacy that comes from having seen all of a person’s faces and discovering that you still can’t help but love them.
It was a summer full of opposites. The men who had made my mother question my safety became some of my closest friends. The law student turned farm mechanic became a sister, a door-opener, the only one willing to see past my initial shyness, gender and ethnicity. The man whose first real words to me were “Sorry, but why exactly are you here?” became my confidant, my mentor and living proof that a college education isn’t necessary to be successful. If my boarding school is a tundra, an emotional ice-world that taught me the value of independence, the farm was an open furnace that melted me to shapelessness before allowing me to be remolded into a stronger self.
Muscle memory and rhythm combined to make a flow of seamless motion. The water shot out of the nozzle of the power washer as I walked down the length of the table, watching the lingering soil disappear from the celery roots. I finished the row and tucked the nozzle under my arm, grabbing the celery bunches two at a time and packing them into the box. There was no wasted motion. I enjoyed the speed with which the bunches vanished off the table. Grab, flip, pack, grab, flip, pack.
I saw a figure approaching out of my peripheral vision. I grabbed the last of the bunches, piled them in the box and turned to see Diego lounging against the desk with a smirk on his face. I twitched the hose in his direction and he yelped as the water peppered his shirt. It was my turn to smirk.
“Are you going to help me or are you just going to stand there and watch?”
He smiled. “I’m fine with watching.” He folded his arms across his chest and I sighed, turning back to the pile of crates full of unwashed celery. I picked up a stack of fifteen and hurried down the table, arranging them in a pyramidal stack. I washed them and packed them, stacked the box on top of the first and began again. I tried to ignore Diego sitting behind me.
After a couple of minutes, he finally spoke. “Maybe they should-a start paying you by the pound, honey.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’ll let you handle talking to Barb about that.”
He laughed and stood upright again. “Nah, I prefer not to get my head bitten off.” He glanced across the table. “But really. You’ve gotten better. You aren’t…well,” he paused.
“Aren’t a clumsy, uncertain nuisance any more?” I grinned.
He winked and said nothing.