There are few landmarks. Darkness stretches to either side. The horizons are clusters of distant lights winking miragelike. The bus continues for another half hour, past Westmoreland, where we turn onto a black, featureless dirt-and-asphalt track called Lack Road. The bus makes a left turn at nowhere, and we drive past nothing for several miles in dust that rises in the headlights like charcoal fog. At the intersection of nada and void, the bus turns left and rumbles along for another few miles. At one point it stops, and four men scramble out in a drill that is precise and economical. They sling two portable sanitation units on a trailer and hitch it to the rear of the bus. Within two minutes, we are heading into the night and dust again.
At the left side of the road at what seems to be an arbitrary point — Why here? What’s different about this patch of dust and blackness from any other we’ve passed? — the bus stops and the men clamber out, stretch, spit, light cigarettes, scratch. We were here. Wherever here was. No moon, just star-shot blackness overhead, nothing to break the line of low, flat fields to the right. Nothing seems to be growing here, just fallow rows of dirt, lighter patches of starlight against darker umbras of furrow, the smell of turned earth and fertilizer, the odor from the portable toilets now being used by the 18 men and two women. The smell of an asparagus field is that of earth and shit.
To our left are a copse of dead trees, some rusted-out tin-roofed shacks, and junked cars. One man breaks away from the group and walks purposefully into the gnarled tree line. Just to appear, equally purposeful, I follow him. He puts on gloves and uproots one of the thin, dead trees. He tosses it to me. I grab hold of it — it is surprisingly light — and stretch, cough, buying time: What do I do with this? He pulls up another tree about the same size and heads back toward the bus, his breath condensing against the starlight. I follow with my tree. He begins stripping branches. I imitate him. Someone hands him a roll of toilet paper, and he uses it as kindling. The paper catches from his match, licks at the small branches until the fire rises to our waists. Sparks burst and flounder upward toward the stars, far more of them than in San Diego — or Calexico. The men and one of the two women gather near the fire, stretching their hands toward it, revolving in wordless unison to warm their backsides.
Fire-rose light spreads across the undersides of clouds to the east, and an older man with a poncho and ranchero’s hat tosses a refrigerator shelf onto the burning tree limbs. He removes several tortillas from a plastic bag and lays them on the metal. From a thermos, he extracts a few chunks of still-warm carne asada with the blade of his buck knife. He tastes it, nods. Some of the others hand him money, peso notes and American coins. He makes tacos and hands them to the paying customers. His son produces bottles of Pepsi and sells four of them for a few coins. One man wearing a baseball cap that bears the legend Mi vida es un Madre (My life is one Mother) talks about the time he was with a woman in Mexico and had to use a plastic bread loaf wrapper and rubber band for a condom. Laughter and coughing. The older woman, maybe 40, grins, exposing a gap in her front teeth. The younger woman (20? 30?) steps out of the toilet and joins the group at the fire. The comedian lowers his voice and now entertains only those close to him.
A smudged cotton dawn gradually reveals endless brown fields criss-crossed with access roads and other buses, like ours, trailing Porti-Sans, in the distance. The hundreds of seagulls wheeling over the fields seem anomalous in the middle of this desert valley. They settle on patches of asparagus that grow in single spears like hearty weeds. Every few inches is either an asparagus spear jutting defiantly from the dirt or a blackened stub where a plant had been burned to fertilize the earth around it. An asparagus farm is neither aesthetic nor appetizing, except possibly to seagulls.
At a word from the foremen, everyone boards the bus once again, and I follow in my truck. We drive past identical blocks broken only by irrigation ditches and access roads. The bus stops 100 yards or so from a tree line with hundreds more seagulls and some gutted, rusting trailers. Racks of empty wooden boxes marked with the name of a farm are set up along the side of the road, waiting to be filled with crops. Each box would hold 25 pounds or so. Next to the boxes are four burras, wooden pushcarts painted the color of dried blood, with one small tire in the front and two wooden legs toward the rear, beneath the handles.
Someone offloads a carton from the bus. It is filled with cuchillos, asparagus knives, for those who have not brought their own. I pick up one and examine the blade; it is dull. One young boy produces a filing stone from his pocket and expertly runs the file ever the tip of the blade. He eyes my knife and smiles but does not offer me the stone. I barely have time to put on my gloves and I am following the crew to the edge of the field.
Without any signal, we wade into the dirt. I watch, imitate. Feet in the furrows to avoid trampling the crop, select a healthy-looking green asparagus (as opposed to yellow) and one that isn’t curved into an S shape, hold it beneath the tip, and wedge the cuchillo blade at an angle where the asparagus meets the soil. When your hand is filled, you lay the plants in a small mound along the top of the row. My mounds are smaller than everyone else’s. How can they hold so many of the things before forming a pile?