Fiction

MAY 2017

 
 
 

Green Tomatoes

by NICHOLAS FINCH

Back then I worked the fields. I’d started out as just a tomato picker, but quickly worked my way up to a low-level field overseer for the same company. It wasn’t a great job, but at least I had one; that was enough for me. I ran a truck alongside a guy named Jeb. He was a real stickler about everything. Jeb was cheap too. There were six guys in our truck, but only four working respirator masks. Jeb held the purse strings tight, so we shared four respirators between us. Jeb's jaw was too big for his face—it gave him a vicious underbite, which made him look slow in the head.

We were heading to the fields in the back of a red ‘92 Dakota from the usual pickup spot, a large trailer park where most of the workers lived. Lansky lived there. Illegals like him would give a percentage of their wages for housing in the trailer park. The trailers were all made of tin and plaster that looked no harder than foam. Most of the windows had been replaced with planks of wood.

It was Lansky’s fifth and last day on the job. He was small, dark, about ten years older than me, and he cut easily. His wife and three children lived with him inside one of the tin homes. Lansky had brought his family to Florida from Haiti in 2004. Despite his English not being the best, we’d become friends. I looked after him, making sure he got his pay and that all his money was there. Jeb would do that to guys—cheat them out of some of their earnings. I didn’t let that happen, not to Lansky. It was good to be needed.

The sun had barely cracked yellow on the horizon when we left the trailer park. I made a joke to Lansky. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but he laughed so hard he damn near fell out of the truck. What I do remember is how white his teeth were when he smiled, and how thin the bones in his arm felt when I grabbed his wrist to keep him from falling, and how my hand wrapped around in full—from thumb to pinky.

We passed very few houses, mostly gas stations and one fast food joint. A burger from the fast food joint would be about an hour’s work for Lansky, or roughly four hundred and fifty picked tomatoes. The road we drove on was so narrow, the right-side tires hugged the grass. Jeb drove with another guy in the passenger seat. I was with Lansky in the bed of the truck, along with two other guys. The road’s grooves and bumps had us rocking side to side amidst empty tomato buckets.

Soon the road forked; we’d go the way of the dirt path and follow the tire tracks of the trucks before us. A low mist settled silver on the fields alongside the road. The smell of wet earth early in the morning made me think of being young. I thought that if I could forget the people around me, it’d be like I was a kid again, getting dropped off at school. Don’t get me wrong, that day in the fields I was still young, but I felt older than I was. My back hurt above the tailbone, and I couldn’t help but remember a time when everything didn’t ache so bad. I told Lansky how the wet morning dirt brought me back.

“It reminds me of something, too,” Lansky said.

“What?” I asked.

“Bouillon. How do you say it in English?” He thought for a second, before making a scooping motion from an imaginary bowl.

“Soup?”

“Bouillon is soup. My mother made it all the time. Then my wife made it all the time. Not anymore. It’s sliced meats—goat meat, thin-cut plantains, potatoes, yam, kelp, celery, cabbage, carrots.”

“Sounds like any old soup,” I laughed.

“No,” he laughed, too, “it’s bouillon. It’s Haitian soup! Very, very good.”

“It sounds good.”

“Yes.”

I brushed away beads of sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. “How come your wife doesn’t make it anymore?”

“It doesn’t taste the same here. My son, Webster, still asks for it. He’s old enough to remember it like I do. But my wife make some, just for you.” Lansky leaned over, slapping my shoulder.

“What’s it about mornings that reminds you of bouillon?”

“Something about the fog. The smell. You start cooking bouillon at night, it roasts, then the smell goes all over the house by morning. You eat it for days and the smell sticks.”

“Well, I look forward to trying some of your wife’s soup, then,” I said.

           

There were three fields we passed on route to ours. The first was full of grazing cows and clipped bulls. Herds that sat off in the distance looked like brown and black stones marking the fields. The second field had a decent fishing pond because of a river that emptied out into it. The third had been charred purposefully to deter brush fires. Close to the road were dead, blackened vines, reminding me of gnarled fingers. The smell of lit coal lingered.

We had to pick up the tomatoes long before they started to ripen because otherwise they’d be nearly rotten by the time they got where they needed to go. After arriving at our field, Jeb got out of the truck first. He stressed how there were too many unpicked tomatoes. Soon they’d be past their ideal harvesting time. That day we had to push to load the trucks up as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Lansky and I left the truck for the vines with a water bottle each and one respirator between us.

All the tomatoes were green and large, about the size of softballs and just as hard, too. We plucked them straight off the vines and into dump buckets. When the buckets were full we’d empty them out into our truck.

Our shirts soon clung to us like wet leaves. Lansky and I stayed within a couple feet of each other. The morning started alright despite the heat, but fatigue soon set in. By noon I hadn’t paid attention to how much water I had drunk, and my bottle was empty.

It was close to 2:00 p.m. and my throat felt like I was sucking down sandpaper with every breath. I knew they were going to start spraying down the fields with pesticides soon. On a day like this—when standards have to be met—I knew they wouldn’t pull us from the fields during the spraying.

I sat down and took off my shirt. Lansky did the same. Shirtless, you could see how thin he really was. And despite being small, his legs were long compared to his torso, like a spider. His arms were so thin I thought of a stick figure. He moved like one, too, all in points, in elbows and knees. He gestured his water bottle towards me. I tried shaking it away, but he insisted. I took a few careful sips and my throat cleared.

“Thank you,” I said.

“No problem.”

I didn’t want him to see me pant or realize how badly I was struggling with the heat.

“What’d you do back in Haiti?” I asked.

“Electric, mostly. I did some work with the church, too, just outside Cap-Haitien.”

I nodded, pretending I might’ve known the place. “Why’d you leave?”

“It was getting dangerous. Not worth it. Not with my family. You? Where are you from?”

“Not too far away actually. It’s a big small town. Lots of houses and bars but no tall buildings. Not too much going on there.”

“Why you haven’t left then?” he asked.

“I did,” I said, wiping down the lower half of my face with my shirt, “for a little while. I went to college for football; it didn’t work out. And then I boxed for a hot minute in Gainesville, but that didn’t work out either. Left me with a bad left eye and a fake canine tooth. Now I’m here.”

“You have family here?”

“Yes,” I lied. I don’t know why I lied. I just did. Maybe I didn’t want him feeling bad for me. All my family had either gone elsewhere, was dead, or didn’t want much to do with me.

“It isn’t too bad then.”

A warm wind blew, rustling the vines behind me. “You got to miss it, though—Haiti, I mean.”

“Course. I miss our old home. It was beautiful. We had a big window. From there you could see Citadel Laferriere up the hills. Beautiful.”

Lansky looked at his hands as he spoke, turning them palm up, and then palm down, over and over. I didn’t know why. My own hands were split open and callused, and some of my knuckles protruded, permanently swollen.

I thought about the home he lived in now, made of tin and plaster. “It’s a shame,” I said, immediately wishing I hadn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said. “Family has a home. All that matters.”

“I suppose a roof is a roof.”

“Even if it leaks and made of tin.”

We both laughed.

“Besides,” said Lansky, “trailer 1069 has something.”

“What?” I asked.

“None of our windows are broken.”

           

The spraying started right after we got back to work. It felt oddly cool against my back. I used my shirt to wipe down the mask. In thirty minutes Lansky and I made two trips to the trucks. We had cleared a decent area of vines that day, but we weren’t too eager to get moving onto another section. We decided to reach deeper into the vines and pluck those tomatoes out, alternating our only respirator between us. The branches tugged at my arm. Soon I wrapped my forearm in my shirt. It made it less painful to pick the tomatoes.

My basket was full after thirty minutes. I looked to Lansky. His basket was noticeably less full. I could tell he had a hard time reaching into the vines. I gave him the respirator. Blood dripped from a few cuts  on his shoulder. There were more cuts further down his arm; those were deeper. After pulling Lansky away from the vines, I poured what was left of his water over the wounds. His arm was beat pretty badly. The skin had torn in parts like sheets of paper.

Lansky pointed at his mask.

“You should keep it on, at least until they stop spraying,” I said.

Shaking his head, Lansky’s knees buckled.

“It’s not good for you.”

Lansky motioned for the straps of the respirator. I tried swatting his hands away. The small man fell. I went after him. He grappled with the mask, ripping it off. The whites of his eyes were streaked with red lines. He rubbed his palm against his throat. He dry-heaved, over and over, but nothing came up.

He fell to his knees as I braced his shoulders, trying to get him upright. Lansky pulled his hand from his mouth. His hand wore spat-up blood. I got him to his feet.

"It must be the pesticides," I handed him the mask. "You have to keep it on, we need to get help."

I had to hold the respirator to his face. I hoisted his arm around my neck so he could use me as a crutch, and we made for the truck. It was only half a mile, but it felt longer. The spraying stopped.

“Jeb,” I shouted, “Jeb!”

He was standing by the truck. As soon as he saw me and Lansky he came running.

“What the hell happened?” he asked.

“He’s had some sort of reaction to the spraying.”

“Damn, he’s cut up pretty bad,” said Jeb.

“We have to get him to a hospital.”

Jeb eyed Lansky. “Listen, Isaiah, we would be fucked if management found out we let a guy out there without a mask, especially a guy with no papers.”

“He might die, Jesus, look at him,” I said.

“Shit.” Jeb braced Lansky’s other side. We carried him to the truck, placing him in the bed. Jeb drove and I sat in the back of the pickup with Lansky. The truck was rattling violently. We rode the road’s bumps with little jumps from where we sat. The bed was full of fruit. Lansky was lent against me, breathing slowly. A few tomatoes fell from off the back of the bed; they hit the concrete without splatting. Some bounced off the road, some even bouncing as high as the truck bed, and soon receded into little green globes glistening against the asphalt. Then they disappeared with the bend of the road. I was impressed with the tomatoes’ resilience. We drove until all the tomatoes that didn’t fit comfortably in the truck were behind us. Soon we reached the hospital.

With the motor still running, Jeb and I lifted Lansky out of the bed and into the emergency room. He was carted off immediately. I gave a vague account of what happened to a nurse and then she followed the rest of them through a revolving door.

“Hey,” said Jeb, “we should get back.”

“Are you insane? We can’t just leave the guy.”

“What about the workers we left at the field? They’re probably wondering where the hell we are.”

“There are other trucks out there,” I said. “Let’s just call another overseer to pick them up.”

“Think about it, Isaiah, he doesn’t have papers or money. He could be in some trouble here. We could be in some trouble. What about your job?”

“Fuck my job.”

Jeb’s brow wrinkled but smoothed over quickly. “I can’t risk it. I have to go.” And he did. I could see through the glass doors Jeb getting into the truck and pulling away. I waited.

 

It was a few hours until the nurse from earlier came out with an update. Lansky would be alright, but he was in a bad way and would have to stay at the hospital for a while. He’d had a pretty serious reaction to the pesticides in his open wounds. It ended up messing with his circulatory system. They might be able to save his arm, she told me. She pressed me with questions. I didn’t give much away, except for his first name. She asked if he had family. He does, I said. She asked me to contact them. I nodded.

The sun was half-mast on its descent when Jeb came to pick me up. I was half happy he did, and half wanting to knock him square in his underbite.

We drove west with me in the passenger seat. The truck threw out a silhouette. The heat had settled, and the humidity had subsided. My arm was hung out the window, and the warm air felt cool against my skin. It is something you only feel when moving fast at dusk in Florida. It was a small silver lining.

“I’m sorry,” said Jeb.

“I understand,” I said, not looking at him.

“I didn’t tell anyone what happened—not yet. But you got to know, if anyone asks, I’m going to have to. I don’t want to, but I can’t risk it.”           

“Well,” I said, “I appreciate it.”

 

Trailer 1069 was no bigger than the others. It was made of the exact same tin and plaster as the rest, but there wasn’t any wood covering the windows; the glass was intact. At this point the sun was a sliver of yellow out beyond the Gulf. I stood at the doorway, apprehensive to knock, imagining the ocean waves washing ashore. The sound it made, not so different from birds’ wings beating wind against a tree’s leaves, was quiet, but unmistakable. This calmed me. I interrupted that calm with three knocks, spaced out over a few more seconds of calm. A young man, with a face not so different from Lansky’s, answered the door. The hot sweet smell of fresh food being boiled wafted out from an unseen stove at the hand of an unseen cook—the mother, perhaps—Lansky’s wife. I wasn’t hungry until right then. I introduced myself as a friend of his father’s. The son put out his hand before I could offer mine. We shook. His hand was thin enough for my thumb to reach my fingers. Though the outside of the house was plain, the inside was rich with many colored fabrics that carpeted the floor and plastered the walls where there were likely holes. There were pictures hanging on the back wall, which wasn’t far from the door at all. Some of those pictures had Lansky in them, posing with many different faces. Most of the photos were of strangers to me. One in particular was in a few different shades of grey that’d started to green from time. It had the nicest frame with a gold trim. It pictured a family lined up in two rows, dressed in their Sunday finest, a mountain in the background which was something very far from Florida’s flatness. The picture seemed to belong to another time, another world. I told the kid his dad was hurting pretty badly, but it was alright, he’d be okay.