I fall behind the others in my rhythm of search, step, step, turn, bend, cut, lift, search…mostly because my back, arms, and knees protest this activity strongly. I have been at it for less than ten minutes.
The kid ahead of me, with the filing stone and a nascent mustache, grins back at me, exposing two missing front teeth. “What are you doing, man?” he asks.
I shrug, smile, pointing at the ground with my knife.
“Hold the espárrago like this.” His thumb and forefinger form a collar where he grips the asparagus at its thinnest point, just beneath the tip. This allows more of them in your hand at one time before you have to set them down. I was holding them at the middle. “You never did this before.” It wasn’t a question.
“You have to go faster; Alfredo will fire you.” He continued to work while he spoke. “Don’t pick those small ones. Nine inches, no less.”
How are you supposed to do that? No one seemed to be measuring the things. I try to gauge nine inches, but the spears in my hand were of wildly different lengths. To keep from being too obvious, I hurry ahead, leaving behind a few yards of unharvested plants. It takes half an hour for the crew to cross one quadrilla (the width of 20 men or 40 rows). We now stand at the tree line, with the Salton Sea visible in the distance. A great blue heron is startled from its perch and wings over the still water. In a moment, it is followed by an egret the size of a child and the color of fresh snow. I stand looking after them and feel my clothes clinging to me with sweat. Dirt-colored perspiration falls from beneath my baseball cap and collects at my nose and chin.
The workers pushing the burras with some seven to ten boxes of produce waddle the carts across the irrigation ditches on thin wooden planks. There they are offloaded in stacks to be collected by forklifts later. Once the boxes are arranged, we walk to the next quadrilla and begin working new rows back in the direction from which we had come. My back is now singing glissandos of pain; my knees and shoulders feel as if they would lock up permanently at any moment. Search…step, step, step, bend, cut, step, bend, cut.
A shadow blocks my view of the next several feet of asparagus plants. The foreman, Alfredo, stands over me. He wears a straw cowboy hat, a clean white jacket, and faded Levis. His face is mottled with either a burn scar or some birthmark. His mustache is thick and long, slightly upturned at the ends, like Pancho Villa’s. His eyes glow darkly from beneath heavy brows. He holds out his hand for my cuchillo. This is it. I’m fired. He points to a piece of black electrician’s tape along the length of the knife. “Nine inches,” he says. “Here,” he takes the cuchillo and holds it beside a spear of asparagus. “Like this, see?” The spear is a little over the taped nine-inch mark. He cuts it, reaches to measure another one. Too short. He plays the cuchillo briefly over two others and settles on a third, cuts it. “You see?”
“Yes. Thanks. Sorry.” I bend to resume working. I have barely managed to keep pace with the others along this quadrilla, and I am again losing ground. When I fall behind or grimace with pain or straighten my back, I feel conspicuous, fraudulent, weak.
“Wait,” Alfredo says. I now realize he is the same foreman I had spoken to in the dark last night in Calexico. “How are you feeling? Sick?”
“No. No. My back hurts a little bit. It’s okay.”
“You take some aspirin later. Everybody takes aspirin.” He grins. “Maybe you should work the burras. It’s easier.” His grin exposes perfect white teeth. He waves me to one of the carts back on the access road. “Put about seven boxes on there and push it out to the first pile of asparagus. I’ll show you what to do.”
At the first mound of harvested plants, he bends and shows me how to grab them. “Make sure they are all facing the same way.” He scoops up the pile with both hands and taps the bottoms lightly against the side of the wooden crates, making them more uniform in length. “Lay them in the box in the same direction. If any of them are too big, too long, to fit in the box, cut the ends like this.” He shows me with his knife. “You have a knife?
“When Rebecca comes, you better talk to her. Maybe she doesn’t like you here. I don’t know. Me, I don’t care. I’m a writer, too. I write songs, baladas, mariachi songs and other things.”
He strolls beside me as I push the burra, stopping and squatting to take hold of a bunch of spears, tap them against the wood, lay them in the box, and sometimes cut the ends. Asparagus spears are more fragile than they look. They snap in my hands whenever I try to hurry. Alfredo says we are picking Brooks asparagus today, and he gestures to a field in the distance where another variety called Harley, or 57, was grown. Asparagus grows very quickly. Tomorrow he would have another crew in this same field picking just as many spears, they grow that fast. Would I be coming back tomorrow? Maybe I would like to hear some of the recordings he has made.
My spine is now one lance of constant pain, but my shoulders and knees are numb. As I push the burra, filling the 25-pound boxes, it becomes more painful and difficult to make any progress through the soft earth. When all seven boxes are filled, the load would weigh almost 200 pounds. And the wind is kicking up, blowing dust in 30-foot sheets across the fields. I hadn’t worn a scarf or bandana. The others all have theirs up over their noses now. The two women look like Arabs, their faces covered with clean rags they had apparently fashioned for such occasions. The dust settles in my eyelashes, nostrils, and then my teeth whenever I try breathing through my mouth, I blink constantly and have to keep my head down, eyes fixed at a spot between my feet. But the pain in my back increases and shoots through my neck when I can’t hold my head upright.