Nagoya Writes

January 30, 2008

A Circular Route by Paul Binford

Filed under: Binford,Issue: 2000,Prose — usbengoshi @ 6:25 pm

Late September, the weather began its shift toward the bracing coolness of autumn. Mike and I sat on a fallen tree in the shade by the still open state employment office at the Toppenish labor camp. A few people remained in the camp, people who’d come up from Florida to pick the fall fruit. They’d all given up on the daily search for a piece of work. We watched a Dodge 1/2 ton truck pulling a fifth wheel trailer follow the one way dirt track through the camp, stop at the exit gate, signal a left turn and pull out onto the asphalt. The sound of the muffled exhaust became a throaty rumble that slowly faded into the south.

A breeze picked up, swirled a few brown leaves into a rotating pattern, concentrated its energy into a tighter circle, rose up and twirled the brown leaves and grit from the campground into a spiralling dust devil. Lively, playful, yet somehow somber, it zipped through the cyclone fence that surrounded the camp, worked its way around the employment office, zigged and zagged to the intersection of the road leading to the orchards and the road going south to the state highway. The dust devil spun a light mass of leaves and grass and dust, it picked up energy and speed, rose off the ground and joined with the breeze that brushed the tops of the cottonwood trees ringing the camp.

Wally came trudging back from the store a quarter mile up the road with a twelve pack of Lucky Lager tucked under his arm. He took a seat on the fallen tree, opened the cardboard box and passed around a couple of stubby brown bottles. I took one, opened it, looked at the inside of the cap. It read F + the word ‘tool’ with the ‘t’ crossed out. Underneath, a hillside with a little man sitting on it.

‘This one reads ‘Fool On a Hill’, ‘ I announced. Mike glanced at me and shrugged. Wally took a long pull on his bottle. ‘You feel like a fool?’ he asked.

Mike didn’t give me time to answer. ‘Wally, I think we oughta give up on this place,’ he said sourly.

‘Zat so?’ the ‘ld Hide queried. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Look around. Nothin’s goin’ on here. See the camp? We’re just about the only ones left.’

In the camp, there were a few sites still occupied, including ours. There were a couple of Florida families, and one from Arizona, a group of Apache Indians. I hadn’t figured out their familial relationships, having only met one of them. There were three young men, two children, boy and girl, an old woman who appeared to be the matriarch, and a middle aged man who was likely the father of the kids. I’d talked with one of the young men, on the day when he joined us for a protest in the nearby city of Yakima. He said his name was Nacho.

‘You mean like the food made out of tortillas,’ I asked jokingly.

‘That’s ‘nachos’. My name is different. I’ve heard that joke before. It isn’t funny.’

His demeanor wasn’t angry, just matter of fact. He told us that he’d come up from the reservation in Arizona, without mentioning anything about the other people in his camp. He’d been coming up every year since he was five. ‘I’d like to keep coming up here,’ he added. ‘Summers on the rez are pitiful.’

‘Is that why you want to get in this protest?’ I asked.

We were on our way to join all the people from the camp, men, women and children, who’d just found out they were squeezed out of the most lucrative picking jobs, the pears and apples, by gangs of Mexicans recruited by the growers. The protest plan, such as it was, had been instigated by Mike, who no doubt saw something like a repeat of his dismissal from his job in Southern ‘regon. It was as if Mike were making the statement, ‘I’ve been through this before; this time I’m not taking it.’

But Nacho didn’t seem so desperate to prove a point. He shrugged at the suggestion that this was his last year in the Northwest. ‘I like a fight. That’s why I’m going with you guys now. We can’t win, you know. Whatever has happened has happened.’

As I looked in the camp, there were the Apaches, waiting. Nacho had told me they would stay a while longer, not caring so much about the work in the first place. They’d been given food stamps, they were camping just as they would be in their home state, the weather was a lot better. He saw me watching and waved, then turned back to his group.

‘Not even a clean up job,’ Mike continued bitterly. ‘They ought to shut that trailer down. It’s worthless. A waste of taxpayer’s money.’

Wally chuckled. ‘Since when are you worried about the taxpayer’s money?’

‘Since I’ve been broke. They should give me the money instead of that dickless pencil pusher.’

Wally took off his dirt and fruit stained golfers hat, scratched his unwashed silver scalp. ‘Don’t panic, boys.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘We’ll just sit here and drink Lucky Lager.’

Wally sipped slowly for a while. ‘You know Stevie, I been doing this fruit trampin’ for near fifteen years.’ I thought he would go into his life story again. ‘Natcherly, there’s times when there ain’t two quarters to rub together, but something always shows up.’

‘Something always rears its ugly head,’ Mike said. He replaced his empty bottle with a fresh one from the box.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ asked Wally.

‘I don’t really know. I read it somewhere.’

‘It means that when something shows up, you’re not going to like it,’ I told them.

Wally laughed, his breath whistling through the gap in his front teeth. He put his second empty bottle into the little cubicle in the box from where he’d taken it, put his hands on his knees and looked around. He reminded me of a picture I’d seen somewhere of General Robert E. Lee, surveying a battlefield before deciding where to deploy his troops. ‘Either of you ever been to Wyoming?’

‘I have,’ said Mike. ‘I went to Yellowstone with my folks when I was a kid. I remember those big boiling mud holes. Mammoth Springs, I think they’re called.’

I kept quiet. Wyoming was one of those places I’d looked at on a map, a lot of open spaces between the lines marking the roads. I pictured the wild life of the Sioux and Cheyenne herding the pioneers into wagon circles.

‘It’s a mite bit early yet. Generlly Frank don’t get started until November.’

‘Frank,’ I repeated.

‘Yeah, Frank. I just called him collect. If we leave now, we can hook up with him in Hood River. He’s leaving for the Little BigHorn Mountains. Just bought himself a new Chevy truck. We got a ride if we get there.’

‘What’s for us to do in the Bighorn Mountains?’ asked Mike.

‘Tree plantin’.’ Wally had mentioned tree planting a few times, mostly in connection with small towns in Arkansas. It had recently come up in a conversation we were having about the winter holiday season. ‘Yeah,’ he’d said. ‘I usually spend my Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years down in Arkansas. I still got Arkansas mud on these blue jeans .’

‘Tree planting,’ I repeated.

‘That’s what I said. Do I need an echo? ‘r maybe your dream is to be a secretary and just write down what the boss says.’

Mike didn’t question Wally’s status as the ‘boss’. What he did say was ”kay Wally. Tell us the details.’

‘Just gimme a chance!’ Wally snarled. He’d opened his third beer. He took a large swallow and struck the General Lee pose again. ‘What Frank’s got up in the BigHorns is a place where there’s been a fire. Usually its loggers we gotta clean up after. We go up there and put trees in the ground. After we finish, we go on to the next job, up until June or July or so. Like I said, he’s startin’ early this year. They usually have to wait until there’s some rain or snow on the ground before we can get going.’ He paused, looked at each of us, and reminded us of what he’d said earlier. ‘Now you get my meaning? Told you, didn’t I? Don’t panic, jest don’t panic!’

I could see his point. Mike and I had been grimly worried about the next step on the road. We’d become dependent on Wally without knowing it. We just waited for Wally to come up with the thing to do when it was time to do it. That’s how he handled things. He was one of those guys who gave out information as it was needed. When the time came to deliver, he delivered. He wasn’t one to speculate on the future until the future was now. Fifteen years, we’d heard it often enough, a span of time that served us, not so much knowing that he’d been tramping around all that time, but knowing that during that time he had learned a different concept of time, the concept of living for today. Today was now, tomorrow will come, and tomorrow will see him either in the same place or in a different place or somewhere in between the two. Sure there were stories, but the manipulation, or rather the power over time, was Wally’s special work of art. He could create something out of an apparent void, his lifestyle was fluid, his fear of the unknown was tempered with his knowledge that there was no unknown. There were simply actions, and his art lay in uncovering those actions and making them suit his purpose of day to day survival. I knew I would follow him, for better or worse, to the mountains in Wyoming. After all, what else could I do? The thought of retracing my steps to Los Angeles sent a chill up my spine. I knew as well that Mike would too. Wally stood up. ‘Let’s go,’ he said.

We broke camp and followed the last of the Florida people down the road. The Apache Indians were the sole survivors of the Toppenish labor camp. Nacho stood and watched us leave. I drove. Wally said we ought to take the northern route back to Hood River, on the Washington side through the Yakima Reservation. The turnoff was at Highway 97, a two lane stretch that ran through the county seat of Goldendale. Wally asked me to stop for more Lucky, which I did at a store across the street from the county courthouse. I waited nervously in the car, watching in the rearview mirror as State Police cars parked in front of the courthouse. Uniformed and armed patrolmen walked up and down the steps leading to the wide swinging doors. ‘ut of Goldendale, the highway climbed up and over the pine covered hills that signalled the eastern flank of the Cascade Range and dropped down into the Columbia Gorge. Across the river, I saw the trailers on the sixteen wheelers hauling freight down the same highway we’d taken to the prune orchards in Milton-Freewater. We followed the river, up and down grades, around sharp curves to White Salmon, where the Columbia was a mile wide and a toll bridge had been built across it. The tires made a low humming sound as we drove on the thick steel mesh that the bridge was made of. The river roiled and frothed beneath us. The bridge ended in the outskirts of Hood River, not far from where we’d camped during the cherry-picking season. We’d just completed a circle.

This story is an excerpt from a yet to be published novel titled ‘The Shademakers’. It was written in the belief that there are incredible stories in the daily life of the grunts of the world, those people who we take for granted and once in a while read about as a statistic somewhere. The migrant farm workers and the treeplanters are such people. I was born and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, went to Catholic schools, escaped as soon as possible. The title of the excerpt indicates that one can never be too sure of where one might end up, perhaps in the same place as the beginning. I’m working on revisions to the novel, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing it’s this: writing a novel requires one to put one’s butt down and keep at it. The words don’t just put themselves on the paper.

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