Saturday, May 26, 2007

Amber Waves of Grain

The chickens ran faster than Jose now. When he had been a teenager and even into his mid-20’s he could always catch them. His father would send him into the yard to catch at least three chickens on special occasions when the whole family was gathered to eat. His father had also taught him how to wring their necks and drain the blood from the body. He was too old and slow to catch the chickens now. His mother and father died many years ago in their hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. When Jose was sober, he would remember crossing the Rio Grande River into South Texas. When he heard about the availability of migrant farm work in Florida he had paid a man $50 to drive him in the back of a solid sided delivery truck to Florida. He and the other human cargo in the truck had been forced to urinate in the corner of the truck and had gone without food or water for the 32 hours of the non-stop trip. Even when the driver would stop for fuel or eat at restaurants on the route, the immigrants remained in the back of the sweltering truck without water or food.

He worked the farms in central Florida for many years, sending the money home to his wife and 3 children in Oaxaca. When possible he had placed any extra money in the hiding place inside his trailer, pulling up the tattered green carpet from the corner of the tiny bedroom. Once the carpet was pulled aside he could reach into the crevice between the floor structure and metal casing over the wheel. The crevice is where he stored the savings he eventually sent to his family via courier, trusting only his fellow immigrant friends from the fields to deliver the money. The trailer had been given to him by a farm owner after many years of working on the farm and running the illegal crews the farmer employed. Jose didn’t speak English well, but he was capable of understanding what was required and communicating the instructions to the Spanish speaking crews. The farm owner had helped him secure citizenship papers, but it was an illegal arrangement, so Jose never felt truly safe from authority. He couldn’t read well either, but he managed to get along by relying on those around him. He kept a low profile and tried to avoid any contact with the police.

The drinking had begun when he returned to Oaxaca and discovered his wife had run away with another man, taking the children, leaving with the money and possessions his earnings had provided. She left no address where they could be found. Heartbroken he had returned to Florida. His sustaining thought had been that the money he earned now was his to spend. Twenty seven years had passed since that last trip home. Jose was rarely sober now in the last half of the sixth decade of his life. A great deal of the money he earned on the farms was spent on the never ending supply of alcohol. He tried very hard to be sober in the fruit gathering season, at least during the day, but it had now become hard even to view the morning’s first light with clarity. When the non-work part of the year came around he found the relief to his pain and loneliness in the best friend he had, the fuzzed reasoning and deep sleep of too much alcohol.

Jose’s reasoning wasn’t always clear, but he knew it was the Christmas season because of the Christmas lights that were strung on the houses nearby. He remembered the long ago Christmases of Mexico when he had been a boy. Now he had no friends or family and no one to celebrate the holiday with, though the lights told him that many families would be gathering and the children would be happy as he had been so many years before. The pain in his chest had grown worse in the past few days and now even the alcohol would not let him ignore the damage. The pain seared through his deepest drunken stupor now. His left eye twitched uncontrollably and his skin had begun to change color, the pale coffee brown tone turning to yellow. The whites of his eyes had also begun to change color. Today the pain had been so severe that he had drank even more heavily, but the pain knifed through his fog. He stumbled to his knees when one of the chickens had run in front of him. In a lurching motion he had tried to grab the chicken as it ran past. He picked up his left hand from the dirt. A skinned area on his lower palm began to bleed through the skin. It didn’t hurt. Oddly he couldn’t feel the hand at all. On all fours now, his hands in the dirt along with his knees, he noticed the ants in front of him. The ants were busy in the way that ants use to mock the lazy, running about the ground carrying debris into and out of the hole with righteous sobriety. Tears streamed down his cheeks, hitting the ground and creating tiny craters that the ants navigated without concern. He noticed that the ants worked on anyway, treating his tears as part of the days challenge. Jose watched the ants for a long time. The ants were fuzzy and seemed to be walking sideways unless Jose squinted his eyes just so. The squinting made him dizzy and his forehead would plop down onto the center of the ant bed for a moment until he could raise his head to study the ant’s relentless march of production once again. Jose noticed the ants crawling over his hands and arms only after they began to sting him. He raised his head higher to a point where he could see the house across the street. He thought he might try to ask for help, but he knew the couple across the street would want to take him to a hospital where his illegal papers would be necessary and he might be exposed. He knew the lady was named LaToya, but he wasn’t sure of her husband’s name. They had helped him before. He liked them. He didn’t communicate too well with them because of his language problem, but he could see in their eyes that they cared about him and he knew they would help, but there was so much about his life they didn’t understand.

He knew they wondered why he slept in his car. When he had a family in Oaxaca, in the time before they had gone off with the unknown man, he had proudly driven them around town in the car, music blaring from the radio, smiles on the faces of his children and wife as together they showed off the wonderful treasure gained by working in America. It was a car like no one that worked in Oaxaca could afford and it made him feel proud. The last time he had seen his family he had driven them all weekend in the car. He slept there to try and remember them. He tried, through the alcohol and pain, to remember his son’s happy smile and the laughter of the boy’s younger sisters. His son would be 34 years old now but Jose had not seen him since he was seven years old. Seven years old is how he pictured his son. He would stare at the radio that had filled the air with music that weekend in Oaxaca trying to remember how it had all been.

He didn’t want the police to find him this way. It meant certain trouble for him. He rose unsteadily from the ground and turned toward the car only to fall to his knees again. He began to crawl, the pain in his chest overwhelming now. When he had finally gotten himself into the back seat he rolled onto his back and the rear window swayed above him. The pain could not be quieted and for the first time in his life Jose prayed to die. He was too tired. He wanted to see his family. He wanted to see his seven year old son. The windows were fogging and he thought again about the family across the street. He wondered if they would notice he was gone. He hoped they could use his chickens. He liked the neighbors. Jose closed his eyes tightly and prayed again.

The police talked to the neighbor across the street. The officer that seemed to be in charge asked the neighbor when he had seen Jose last. He asked him if he had noticed anything unusual the night before. He asked if Jose had any relatives that he knew about. He said it appeared Jose had died of natural causes.

The neighbor crossed the street to tell his wife LaToya what had happened. When she heard about the man with the chickens, the one she had waved at each morning and had helped on some occasions, she lowered her head to the table where she was wrapping Christmas presents and began to softly cry.

The medical examiner’s assistant removed the wallet from the small brown man’s hip pocket. She searched through the contents for a clue to the man’s identity, hoping to contact his relatives. Inside the wallet she discovered a photo of a young and smiling Mexican woman and 3 children. The oldest child in the photo, a boy, appeared to be around six years of age. A younger sister stared into the arms of the mother, smiling at a newborn baby sister. The mother smiled at the camera. In an inside sleeve of the wallet she found another curious piece of folded paper. It was a full page of white notebook paper with what appeared to be the words of ‘America the Beautiful’ written carefully in blue ink. The paper was worn and tattered, not all of the words legible after riding many years in the man’s pocket. Enough of the words were present for her to understand what it was and as she re-folded the paper into the complete square in which it had been originally folded she could just make out the words ‘amber waves of grain’ in the center of the outside fold. She sat the paper aside and studied the photo again. These are beautiful grandchildren she thought to herself.


Lynilu said...

This brought me tears for several reasons. But I'll wonder aloud on just this one thought: If it meant as much to those of us who have inherited the right to be here, if only we didn't take it for granted, but carried its importance with us in our hearts, how different might our homeland be? I'm sad that we need reminders. And I'm not pointing my finger at others; I'm in there, too.

Hope everyone remembers this weekend for something more than the excellent steaks and ribs grilled in the back yard.

Reach said...


Working brilliantly to describe the details of your mind’s eye, in these stories, your words capture the true meaning of our Red, White, and Blue. On this holiday weekend so many people will focus their attention in celebration to those who have given their life for our freedoms; yet, over-looking those lives lost in the attempt of participation.

Living in Southern California, I know many dreams of numerous ‘Jose’s’- While each journey lingers and concludes separately from the other, the quest remains the same.

I wish your family and friends a fulfilling weekend as you bring to mind a heritage and history, during your celebrations. Additionally, as someone recently said to me- You are appreciated, Seven, my friend.


Seven said...

Silver Lovely and Reach,
As always you are both articulate and kind, a remarkable combination of powers, and I prize you as friends.
This little story was inspired by many thoughts, ideas and memories, and somewhat fitting on this holiday in my mind. I got out of bed at 3am to write so it has obviously been on my mind.
Thre are many threads to the story, perhaps too many, but my central premise here is this:
America is not about a particular culture or a particular race of people. Amid the immigration controversy I see what I think of as 'upside down' thinking. Many think we can and should disallow those of a different culture. I don't have a solution to such a complex problem as immigration and I am not aiming at a political discussion. I just want to say clearly what I believe.
"America is about an 'idea'. America is not about a distinct and separate culture. This 'idea' of America is only a little more than 200 years old. Still it is a proven 'idea' to the point that I beleive the American people hold a covenant with one another. It is the idea or more emotionally stated,"the covenant' of freedom and self governance that requires protection. If you understand, accept and believe in the covenant, you can be an American. This is what so many have fought and died for. Today young men and women continue to protect the 'covenant'. America remains an 'idea' and the idea need not be exclusive. It need only be understood and protected.

Reach said...

The word Covenant carries forward so much power. I believe this to be another post- from the Post Master General.
Be Safe.

Lynilu said...

Amen, Seven. I couldn't agree more, and I am frustrated with the isolationistic trend. Have a peaceful weekend.

patti_cake said...

Such a touching and moving story. It brought to mind that Stacy the Peanut Queen had a neighbor who lived across the street from her who sounds very similar to Jose'.
Despite my frivolous blog post about grilling out I DID remember what the day was and what id stood and gave thanks for my freedoms and those responsible for them!
Miss you Seven.

Seven said...

Thanks Cakes,
Celebration is vital. Carry on.

kathi said...

This is some of the best descriptive writing I've read...ever. I know you've got to be extremely proud of this, but I've got to wonder if even you realize how powerful this is. Seriously, this is the stuff that great american novels are made of.

Anonymous said...

I am the child of immigrants, not american but an immigrant family all the same.
I read this story with my heart in my throat, it captured the alienation, the hope, and the trust placed in humankind when one leaves the familiar and goes to the unknown in the hope of a better life. It also reminds us that to live life without love, can be soul destroying.
thankyou for your beautiful words