After attending to Samuel, the least badly hurt of the trio, Dr. Vilstrom returned to Ruperto. Dr. Vilstrom was a young M.D. but he understood the realities and didn’t frighten the farm workers by asking too many questions. He couldn’t get Ruperto to agree to go alone to the hospital by ambulance, so
when Apolo offered to drive the injured picker into Seattle in the farm truck, Vilstrom unofficially okayed the idea. He had seen farm workers die of everything from heart failure to suicide while waiting for ambulances that never came, so he wasn’t going to try to talk them out of it.
An hour later they drove into Seattle in the pickup truck. Day was breaking when the red truck joined the traffic crossing the great pillared spans of freeway that converge on the city. Apolo, at the wheel, advised Florentino and Samuel not to try to squeeze any money out of the farm bosses. “They pay you, they one-way you, man. You’re in Washington. It’s a long way home and a long way back.”
But Ruperto was a different story. In Ruperto’s case the risk-reward balance was different. “Ruperto, they make you pretty again, huh?” A moaning in the back. “The boss’ll pick up every penny, I’m gonna tell ’em who did it.” In Apolo’s mind it was no coincidence that a gang of union farm workers had shown up at the farm that morning in worn boots and Stetsons and pelted the pickers with rocks and jeers. Apolo’s was the barbed righteousness of an ex-union man. “Who else? No fueron diablos,” he laughed at them. “It wasn’t devils who did this.”
Florentino opened his mouth in wordless discontent, looking out the window at the traffic. Blood trickled down the bridge of his nose. The strawberry farm, a massive cooperative of absentee Seattle growers, had recently closed their union packing house, only he hadn’t known it until the squad of out-of-work men stalked up the edge of the field that morning calling them sluts and whoresons, rubes and Oaxaquitas and throwing clods and stones at them.
He had been robbed before, he had been mugged at knifepoint, but never beaten with such vicious uncanny vengeful malice. Apolo wanted them to report the assault to the cops but knowing they were illegal he didn’t push them to do it. He had explained everything to his own satisfaction, but it was by no means so clear. Florentino had heard of drug gangs and skinheads attacking migrant workers with the same brutality.
As he stared out the window at the traffic, an insistent image seeped up in his thoughts the way the blood seeped out of him. He saw a bus jogging back and forth on a dirt road, a Mexican bus not a Yankee bus, a junky camión belching black smoke and blaring ballads, only he didn’t see where it was headed. Was it the bus he had left home on when he was fifteen, or the bus he later rode to the Mexico-California border, or one of the hundred other doddering conveyances that had carried him across the West, or maybe none of those but a bus he hadn’t yet taken?
Blood, a clot of it, cool and sticky, pressed on his right eye. He looked over at Samuel, searching his profile for some sign of kinship, then returned his swollen face to the window. Apolo was right to laugh at them, at their softness and superstition. No fueron diablos. It isn’t devil’s work that bloodies us, it’s men.
It was seven o’clock in the morning when they left Ruperto at Harborview Hospital downtown. Apolo had to return to the farm, to see to his crew, and Samuel went with him, to go back to picking strawberries. But Florentino had done some thinking during the drive, racing along in the pre-dawn, the light of the oncoming cars striking his face, and at the last minute, somewhere south of downtown, having decided to stay for a while, he asked Apolo to pull over the truck and let him out.
And so it was that in June Florentino found himself without work in the city of Seattle.
Learn more about Florentino and the Mixtec. See the Mixtec Photo Album>
After work he bedded down with a couple of Oaxacans in an open shed behind the shuttered packing plant. From here they had a view across the fields to the silhouetted mountains and the stars over the summits. Twinkling airplanes descended against the Cascades and entered their dreams. It was a private spot, the best place on the farm to bed down, and put them at the top of the heap in the eyes of the other pickers. On this June night it was not a good place
to be caught sleeping.
The scrape of footfalls woke him and he edged up watching a coal spark orange and smelled the tobacco smoke. Another coal pulsed in midair and sidelit a bristled jaw. Florentino hadn’t risen before a light flooded the darkness and the earth slammed into him. Beside him Ruperto and Samuel were kicked awake. The three were blinded by spotlights and thrown from their bedding. They never had a chance to lift their hands before the bats beat down on them. Again and again the bats cracked down, on their arms, their legs, their heads. Pain lanced his neck and jaws, the bones of his limbs buckled.
Florentino curled up under the blows, the shadows whirling around him, his torn breath bursting in his ears, hearing the close cries of Ruperto and Samuel, the insults to their flesh and bone. Something stranger he heard too, a hissing or snickering, a cruel whisper that loudened and multiplied through the shed and overfilled the night.
The air tasted of turned earth and diesel oil and finally of blood. The attackers, masked and hooded, took everything: every scrap of bedding, every trapping of these migrant lives was stuffed into large plastic garbage bags and made off with.
Florentino was stripped to the skin. The silver cross was ripped from his neck. The thieves fell on them like a pack of dogs or a swarm of fiends and were gone again in minutes.
Experience slipped a sprocket for Florentino; unreality rushed in. He had vivid perceptions of the road unreeling in front of him, the flanking farm country, the night like a tunnel they hurtled through. Ruperto lay screaming in the back of the crew cab. Their foreman Apolo, his knuckles crimped on the steering wheel, spoke calming words to them. The windshield wipers slapped back and forth. It was twentyfive miles up the two-lane highway to the clinic. The clinic windows were lit when they arrived. Apolo braked suddenly and the urine in the back sloshed forward on the cab floor. Florentino stumbled out on the gravel and vomited.
The doctor hit Ruperto with a hypodermic needle and warned him he would suffer a disfigurement if he didn’t go into emergency and get the crushed cheek taken care of. “He will have to have plastic surgery, do you understand what I’m saying?” Dr. Vilstrom spoke to Florentino and Apolo, who took turns trying to get through to Ruperto. “Para que su cara … se cura, am I making any sense?”
Florentino was luckier than Ruperto. Dr. Vilstrom washed the blood off his face and sewed the gash over his eye with twenty stitches. He extracted the two premolars that hung from slim roots in Florentino’s upper right jaw. “You should get X-rays,” Dr. Vilstrom said, “it’s possible you have fractures.” He gave Florentino a jar of pain pills and wrote him a prescription for a refill. “See how you’re feeling in a day or two. Careful with those ribs,” he added, smiling at Florentino.
When Florentino, who hadn’t a penny on him and was dressed in jeans and a red field shirt which Apolo had fished out of a rag bin at the farm for him, was told by Dr. Vilstrom that he didn’t owe him any money for the medical help, that the clinic was funded with state and private money, Florentino sat down on one of the plastic chairs against the clinic wall and cried. For the doctor’s tender hands, for the generosity of strangers, for the pain and humiliation of what had been done to him, for his own abhorrent self—for all these things he wept.