Post Road Magazine #30

The Fields

Katrina Carrasco

At four o'clock I make coffee. My feet stick to the cold lino as I stumble around the kitchen, sluggish, my eyes gummed with sleep and lash adhesive. Our percolator is ancient. Weighty. Chips in its enamel show iron bones. I fumble it onto the stove and the noise pops through me, a reminder of why I came out here to the fields, fields so far from a city they might as well be Mars.

"They don't usually send us a girl."

That was the first thing Nacho said to me when he picked me up at the depot. Window rolled down. Knot-browed and peering under a dirty hat. I'd hoped he would be handsome.

"I'm thirty-five," I told him.

"They don't usually send us a girl," he repeated.

Then I took off my sunglasses and his smirk shriveled. He didn't speak to me for the rest of the drive.

Pancake batter, butter, steam rising in the single bulb's amber glow. I chop onions. Cube mushrooms. I don't like to look at my hands, but at least here they are useful. In frequent use. Ben and Nacho eat four times a day. I thought they might be uneasy about me touching their food, but the plates I wash have bare dusts of crumbs, picked-clean rinds, thin skins of jelly ruptured by thumbprints.

The refrigerator light is out so I have to feel around for the paper-wrapped steaks. This reminds me of a party game at Halloween, where we'd reach inside shopping bags filled with cold noodles or Jell-O or peeled grapes and say, these are brains, bloody goop, eyeballs. It was funny when I was a kid. It was fun. Now my hand skims over the pimpled rim of a milk jug and it's not funny.

The refrigerator light is out and it's another thing that's failing, falling to pieces. Last week the freezer door came off its hinges. I wired it back into place, applied a plaster of duct tape. Not that there's much in there to keep cold. It's coming time for a trip to the market and I will feed the men the last frostbitten brisket, the last tins of beans before I make that journey.

The refrigerator light is out and I am standing there, eyes closed, cheeks cold, clutching the butcher-papered meat to my chest because I heard a footstep in the hall and started to ask Javier if he wanted one egg or two.

*

Nacho sets his plate on the counter, at the edge of my pile of potato peelings.

"We could use some help in the fields." He nods at the window, at the pink light kindling the hill behind the ranch house. "The new guy's not coming anymore."

"I just cook," I say.

"I'll tell the agency. They can pay you extra."

He leans a hip into the formica. Picks up his egg-crusted fork and taps it on the plate. I go back to my peeling, the potatoes' juice firing a fierce itch on my knuckles. Nacho is freshly showered. He smells of wet hair, of the mint-tinted soap we all use at the ranch. I tilt my head toward him. Breathe in. His fork taps. Taps. Screeches over the enamel plate.

"Why do you wear that shit out here," he says. "Nobody cares."

"I care."

"You still look like hell," he says.

Outside, the light is changing from pink to pale yellow. The top edge of the sun pulses just out of sight. Maybe it was thinking of Javier, maybe it was the dream I woke sweating but forgetful from, but I am too soft this morning. Tears collect in my false lashes and when the sun bursts against the glass all I see are rainbows.

"Jódete, Nacho," I say.

He drops his fork and walks away.

I think he says sorry or something like it but I don't want to hear apologies. Instead I want him wordless. I want him to touch me. I want him to come back into the kitchen and stand behind me, his soap-scented body warm on mine, and push aside the dark sweep of my wig to kiss my neck. Kiss me even though I have furrowed scar tissue for skin. Even though I don't look at my own self when I shower. I used to love to take baths. To feel the smooth roundings of my ribs, my hips, my upper thighs. Now I use a dribble of soap to wash my armpits and my ass. The tepid water stings. While I wash I look up at the plastered ceiling, at the spider web crocheted in the corner, and hum old Pedro Infante songs. They remind me of afternoons with tía Rosaura, who was already safe and dead when it happened, so in this way they don't remind me of anything.

*

Home fries. Tinned gravy. Hamburger patties, fat, charred, and scalding.

"Thank you," Ben says, when I set down his plate. He always takes his hat off at the table. I am in love with his chestnut-colored hair.

"Where's Nacho?" I ask, still holding the other man's lunch.

"Finishing up at the new silo." Ben cuts a thick wedge of hamburger, dips it in gravy. With his mouth full he looks up at me. "He says you might come give us a hand."

"That's not what I told him." I set the plate before Nacho's chair. "If he's going to be a while I should put that in the fridge."

"We'd appreciate it," Ben says. "With the backhoe broken we're doing a lot of manual work. The new guy's not coming after all and we won't get a replacement cylinder until next week, at the soonest."

"Can't you bring somebody from town?"

"They don't have clearance," he says.

I've never been to the fields. They're on the other side of the hill, the place where the sun comes from each morning and the chemical smell each afternoon. Ben and Nacho drag it in, too, when they return for meals. By evening the ranch house teems with zinc and meat and lemon.

I don't want to get closer to that smell. But going out to the fields will mean a ride with Ben or Nacho, me and one of them snug in the leather cube of a truck cab. My knee will be next to the gearshift. Maybe close enough to touch, accidentally or on purpose, a brush of fingers or the hot squeeze of a whole palm. The two men don't bring women around. They don't drive into town on a Saturday night for the jukebox and beer at Polly's. They don't touch each other, either, not that I've noticed. So they must be lonely. Not as lonely as me, but I still have a body and they have bodies and we are alive inside them.

Ben eats hunched over his plate, using his pale hand as a napkin, gravy glossy over blue veins and tiny golden hairs. The men wear gloves while they work, masks, long sleeves, so they are sun-browned in strange configurations. Dark strips of skin at the backs of their necks and outer edges of their chins. I have not seen them without clothes on but I think about it. The long afternoon between lunch and first supper belongs to me. Alone in the house, I linger in the living room. Unfurl on the sofa under shuttered windows. Roll up my pants and sleeves so thick smears of sunlight drip over my limbs. Sometimes I think of Ben licking my skin. Once I imagined a man coming to the house, another Scorcher, just opening the door and falling onto me, but when I thought of our cratered bodies colliding I became afraid. Sometimes I read, but lately the words in my paperbacks swim together and turn mean, so I'll find myself holding a letter from Javier or a children's book, all colors and cachorros and Martín a warm weight on my belly.

"We sure could use your help," Ben says.

He smiles at me, his thick eyebrows raised and plaintive. Back in the before I would have winked at him. I would have let him buy me a drink.

"I can't cook four times a day if I'm helping you," I say. "I'll do breakfast and one supper. You'll have to figure out lunches."

"Well all right." Ben slaps his denim-clad thigh. "We'll take care of the grunt work. You can drive the truck."

"Do I need boots?"

"No," Ben says. "But I'll get you a mask. I think they're useless, but if we're caught without 'em we could lose our jobs."

I regret agreeing. I didn't come out here to see the fields, though I have wondered about them. How big they are to the naked eye. The official reports were vague and placating: "Land has been allocated in the interior for collection and safe disposal of remains." This is just one facility, but the agency said it was a large operation, some 10,000 acres. When I tried to imagine all that space I thought of the cattle farms of Coalinga, how they girded the freeway for miles, shit-stink seeping in through the AC, the lumps and lumps and lumps of shit-colored, collapsed cows, drowsing in their own filth and waiting to suffer one final indignity, the hot spray and bellow of their death. That was as far as I could imagine without starting to panic.

*

Ben is getting up from the table when the door opens. Nacho holds the frame with one hand, wedges off his boots with the other.

"Smells good in here," he says, dropping a boot into the gravel outside.

"Mercedes is going to come out this afternoon," Ben tells him. "I'll get some gear while you eat, then you can drive her."

Nacho walks past the entryway sink and I point him back to it.

"You're not getting my kitchen filthy," I say.

He stops. Returns to the sink and opens the tap, its metal squeaking.

"Finally teaching him some manners," Ben says, laughing as he walks through the living room.

I pull plastic wrap off Nacho's lunch. The fat around the hamburger patties has hardened into white wax. The gravy has a skin.

"Might not be good cold," I tell him, when he comes clean-handed to the table.

"I'll eat it," he says.

While he eats I go to my room. I don't look down as I strip, as I rush into a faded pair of jeans and a plaid button-down. My wig gets caught in my collar. I consider taking it off. It might soak up the smell of the fields. And Nacho is right: Nobody cares out here. The two men know what I'm hiding under the wig and penciled-on eyebrows and cakey concealer. But I don't want them to see it. Knowing and seeing are two different things.

I leave the wig on.

In the living room my gear is arranged on the sofa: Stetson, mask, treated gloves, plastic booties. Nacho stands by the open door, hat in hand. There's a rusty blur behind him as Ben's truck rumbles down the driveway.

"Probably won't need those," Nacho says, waving his hat at the booties. "You can climb over to the driver's seat when I get out."

The Stetson's tight band mashes the wig into my skin. I wait for Nacho to tell me to take it off, but he just kicks at the carpet with one socked foot and watches me gather up the other gear.

It's strange to leave the ranch house in the heat of day. To feel unfiltered sunlight on my hands and neck. I make my trips to town in the early morning, when the sun is unborn and the roads are empty. It's a two-hour drive. The market opens at five and if I time it right I'm the only soul in the building save the checker and the stockboy. The checker is an older woman who likes to remind me I don't belong. She makes me show my wrist stamp before she lets me come inside. She puts on gloves before bagging my groceries. Her nametag says Martha. Her eyes say get out.

Gravel crunches under my sneakers as we walk to Nacho's truck, the light-blue pickup he drove when he collected me at the depot. The door handle is warm. It pops open and I startle, drop the gloves onto the driveway's mica shine. Bending to collect them brings my face near the front tire. There is red on its rubber, caked in its deep treads. Where we are going comes over me in a rush. I lean against the truck.

"Vamos," Nacho says.

In the cab there's none of the closeness I imagined. The gap between the gearshift and my knee is a foot long or more. I am still queasy. The thumping tires shake bile higher in my throat. Nacho hitches forward, rubs something off the windscreen with his sleeve. Muscles shift at his shoulder but I can only glance at them before folding myself tight into the seat and holding in all the things inside of me that want to come spilling out.

We take the last switchback. Crest the ridge. Up here the smell is all around, sun-bloated, and the fields bleed out into the horizon, silver caps and silver silos and red and red and red and red. My hand, pressed against the glass, is red and trembling.

"We just flipped the silo at lot seventy five," Nacho says, as we bump and rattle on the long descent. "It's a ways out there."

Seventy five. Seventy five. To distract myself I sing "El Durazno" silently, a loop of the opening lines, think of the abandoned spider web in the shower, but then of abandoned cars, the looping drool that webbed the glass- me he de comer un durazno- fever-eaten bodies bagged in the apartment hallway- desde la raíz- bonfires rooted in flesh- hasta el hueso- Javier, bone-wasted and holding me in our stripped bed, where I couldn't look at the veined eruptions of his eyes but later how I wished I had.

"Can you turn on the radio," I say.

Nacho flips the switch. A slide guitar wails into the cab. I recognize the tune but no lyrics come in, and I need to hear a voice that's not my own. So I ask: "Do you miss the old music?"

"I'm starting to forget it," he says. "What the words were."

I remember when they began pulling tracks. It was after the first big name fell ill, then died, all his multiplatinum money doing nothing to stop the Burn. That was back when no one knew how bad it would get. If it would stop.

We are in the valley, now, on the access road among the rows. I don't want to look but I do. I squint through the screen of my glued-on lashes. Flinch blind between details: a red foot-don't look-a sideways jaw-don't look-a tiny fist no bigger than a plum. I am looking for them and I know it. I am looking for them but I don't want to see them like this. Humped in the sun. Crop-dusted with Cylexine and its antiviral, anti-rot cocktail. Two bodies in a reeking sea. They could be reaching out to me as I thump by in a blue truck with a man I wish would fuck me and is that not a betrayal is that not a sin they are dead they are dead and I am breathing gasping choking.

"Stop! Stop." I kick open the door and lean against my seatbelt, bile and pancake batter heaving out of me to splatter in the dirt. The red Cylexine smell is warm and slow and everywhere like a tide of saliva.

Nacho holds out a water bottle as I wipe my mouth.

"You get used to it," he says. "It's fucked up."

"I thought I could do this," I say, closing my eyes. "But I can't. Please take me back."

He turns off the car. With the slide guitar silenced the fields sound like nothing. I throw up again, weakly, and lean my forehead against the doorframe.

"You think I can do this?" he says, and his voice is loud behind me, banging off the insides of the cab. "I was a rancher! All my life, like my uncles. Then the government tossed me some change for my land and trucked all these Scorchers here and dumped them on me. You think I like shoveling bodies into pits?"

I shake my head. My eyes are closed but with the sunlight on my lids everything is still red. The edge of the door burrows into my temple, pressing in to meet the headache that's pressing out, so my skull might split neatly along the side like a cracked egg.

"I wish you'd all stayed in the cities," he says. "You die there, you rot there."

Sweat slides down my cheek. I finish the water in the bottle. Gather my body onto the seat enough to close the door. Nacho is done yelling but he's breathing heavy. His hands twist squeaks from the steering wheel.

"Please take me back," I say.

"Goddamn it." He throws the truck into reverse. Slaps a hand behind my headrest so he can crank his torso around to see out the rear window.

"I'm going to get so much shit from the inspector," he says. "No parts, no help, and somehow it's gonna be my fucking fault. Carajo."

We roll backwards through the body fields, slow, to the strains of a barren ranchera. At this speed the faces are too clear-cut, too close. Pitted noses. Pulped and bulging tongues. All those bloodshot eyes that will never shut.

"And you can't suck it up," he says.

My teeth chatter with the rut-jump of the truck's backward plunge.

"How bad can it be?" he says. "You see that shit in the mirror every morning, no?"

I haven't looked in a mirror in years. I put on my face in the faint blue reflection of my bedroom window, where my features ghost over rocks and bunchgrass, over the western road to town and the depot and the faraway coast, the long miles I blurred past in buses as I tried to run from them but also to them because they are dead and I am breathing and every day I say their names.

"My husband might be out there." The words leak in a bitter hiccup. "My son."

I wipe my mouth on my collar. Nacho wheezes an oath. His hands on the wheel are white-knuckled. I hope he feels like shit. I hope he is sick with guilt. The rear tires bump up through gravel and we back onto the main road, the last red fingers clawing out of the ditch. Nacho changes gears and we start up the switchbacks.

"Jesus," he says.

"I'm sorry," he says.

I don't say anything. He already knows too much of me, too much of what I wish I didn't know myself.

I don't say we all had our stamps. We'd all survived the fever and been cleared. Each day for weeks we showed up at the local clinic, a packed room dizzy with heat and rubbing alcohol fumes. I held Martín and bounced him and taught him to count on his scabbed little hands. One two three four five. They are calling number one one two. That's thumb, thumb, index finger. Javier clutched our family's paper number. Two hundred seventy five. After the first few days he put it into a Ziploc bag, because the sweat from his fingers was starting to make the ink bleed.

The day they called two seventy five, Martín cried when they seared iridescent ink onto his wrist. But I held him still. I said, don't scream, sweetheart. Don't scream, cariño. We are the lucky ones.

I don't say what happened two weeks later, when Javier took Martín for a walk. They met a Patrol as they were leaving the park. I don't know what happened. I was never told why. But the Patrol shot them. Pop, pop. They were cleared and stamped and the Patrol shot them anyway. I didn't get to see their bodies. The removal policy for Scorchers, I was told, was strict. Same-day discharge from the city.

And I don't say the worst thing, my failing, its fatal ache always tugging at my stomach. How hard it was to hold Martín. How I had to force myself to smile into his red-raw eyes. Force myself to touch his red-scabbed thumb, to kiss his head when he said "one," the patchy skin stretched thin over his skull and rough on my lips. Good, I said, that's good, mijito. And I was ashamed to not love him more, my ravaged child, who'd once had hazel eyes delighted with the world, who'd once had hair soft and milk-sweet and luminous as a moonlit sky.

The truck weaves up gravel switchbacks. Nacho reaches out for the radio dial but doesn't turn it off. We rise up over the rolling landscape, silver silos flashing in the sun, then summit the crest of the hill. On the other side is the ranch house, the blue-green fields, the next farm over with corn stalks gone to seed and its dwelling abandoned, another neighbor chased away by the fifty-mile Food Safety radius.

In the driveway Nacho parks the truck. He takes off his hat. Turns sideways in the seat to look me full in the face. His forehead is shiny with sweat, his curly black hair flattened into his temples. The bottoms of his eyes are wet.

"Mercedes," he says. "I'm sorry."

"Don't ask me to go out there again," I say.

He nods.

"I thought maybe I could do it," I tell him. "It's been seven years."

They may be long buried, sprayed with Cylexine and smashed inside one of those inverted metal silos. Probably not on this farm. There are hundreds of others closer to California. But I still looked for them. I still saw them in every hand, in every upturned cheek.

"I didn't know," he says.

"How could you," I tell him. "I'm not the one who died."

I still have a body, and I am alive inside it.

I burn inside it.



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