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Spring 2008 Edition
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Author: Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
Location: Cotes D'Armor, France

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau grew up in Manila, greased elbows in Los Angeles, and is currently sharpening her pen in Bretagne, hoping it is indeed stronger than the sword. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in elimae, WORD RIOT, Brink Magazine and Heights.

The Boy Who Played Me John Denver

That boy right there, the one holding the guitar, I knew him once. We worked the Oxnard fields together. Tomatoes and berries in the spring. Plums, apricots and nectarines in summer. Grapes in the fall. Then, of course, cabbage and lettuce all year round. Forty cents a bucket, and his fingers moving so fast, he'd pick 150 buckets, ten hours flat.

At night, we would tell each other stories. I told him how I hid under a bed of bananas with seven others, the smell of unwashed armpits and farts muffling the banana scent. How I needed to pee so bad but the truck couldn't stop so I just let it trickle down my leg. He told me about slogging through the rattler-filled desert, his legs and feet so sore he couldn't move for days.

We talked purposes. His was to buy his father a farm. Then to make so much money from it, he could just sit on the porch and strum his music and no one would say anything. Mine was to dig my grandmother out of debt. She'd borrowed here and there to send me to college and I went and nailed the right marks, but since there were no jobs, she borrowed even more to pay for my coyote.

We talked about people. What it meant to have balls. He was a good foot smaller than the rest, and even though he worked those crops better than anyone, probably because he did, they always called him puto. Little fag. I said, those people, they're the same ones who say a woman's job is in the kitchen, not the fields. In the beginning, when my skin bled and peeled in places and it was painful to hold anything, I almost believed them. But when sweaty, pot-bellied sons of bitches pin you to the ground and point a razor to your neck, you learn that the pain in your hands is nothing. Your skin becomes so hard you go out there, picking with a vengeance until they drag you back to the truck because it's time to go. I said all this to the boy, and he knew to look in my eyes and nod his head. Afterward, he played a John Denver song about country roads on his guitar, the one that's all over the radio, and Bob Dylan's blowing in the wind. And because he's brown like earth, he also sang corridos.

You should've heard him. He didn't have the best voice around, but the way he sang, almost a whisper so you had to lean in really close, you felt it in your bones. Not just the music. The ache. And it was so beautiful, there was nothing left to say. It was all there.

In fact, the only time the boy's voice turned ugly was once when we had that huge argument. We just got paid and he was supposed to have five hundred dollars for the two weeks but they only gave him three hundred. Said there was an increase in the rent for our quarters. That the boy only brought in a thousand or so buckets, not a thousand four hundred.

The boy was furious. Said it wasn't right. They can't keep treating us like dirt. He said we were all created equal, and he wanted to join the union to fight for his equality. I told him that even in unions you have big people and little people and it's not the big people who get their backs broken. I told him the best way to get even is to buy that farm he talked about. And you know what he said? That I can't keep my head down all the time. That maybe the reason gringos kept crawling to my bed is because I let them. I slapped him so hard his teeth cut a gash on his mouth. But I remembered. I remember his words very well.

Even when we fought, though, we understood each other. And there were a lot of things we did agree on. Like we can't let it slip. That we're not like the others--there one day and gone the next. Like Julio, caught at a stoplight without a license. Or Andoy and Bert, axed because they drank their pay and then showed up puking. Or when Big Juan went back to Nicaragua because, he said, at least he'd get some respect, there. We told ourselves we're not stupid like that at all.

But that boy, the one who played me John Denver, the one who hummed in my ear and knew to look in my eyes, he did go away. And not in the picket lines like I was afraid of. One second he was flicking a caterpillar from his boot, the next he was ten feet in the air. He was crossing the road ahead of me. We were going to a movie, I can't remember what, because harvest season was over and we were in-between rounds. I think the car could have been blue, but it went by so fast it looked black. Or gray. I wanted to testify to the police, to tell them who the boy was, to give them a name, but my head throbbed thinking of that damn banana truck. Of my face pounding the soil, the corrugated walls, the pulp of my bed. Of my grandmother hiding under the sink when the people we owed money to banged on the door.

So I watched the boy touch earth without a sound. Afterward, I waited for an hour behind a bush until a car finally stopped, then I went back to the quarters. That's where I got the picture you're holding. When you're done looking, just put it back on my cabinet and don't turn off the light. I can't sleep anymore in the dark.

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