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Men of the Earth – Part I

Men of the Earth I

“Out of anybody in the world,” said Amadeus, “who would you choose?” It was one of those afternoons and we had nothing. Amadeus didn’t talk a lot but he also hated silence, so if nobody spoke up he would try to fill the space. I couldn’t help smiling at his meaningless questions like that, it was such an Amadeus thing to say.

I wouldn’t have noticed the silence unless he’d said that; it’d descended on us naturally. We were comfortable on the edge of the wild forest, looking out over the neat lines of wheat and corn and greenhouses that caught the light of the sun and hurt our eyes to look. Occasionally while we were perched in the hills a wind would stir the surface of those fields and to us it resembled a great gold ocean or a humanized Eden, but we knew better.

We knew the fields were for work, the unpaved roads were dusty and hot and there wasn’t a tree for miles to provide the slightest shade. Men worked those fields in all weather, hot or cold. It could never rain, blow, hail or snow too hard for the field. That’s why we escaped when we could, to the edge of the forest.

“Caine from Kung Fu,” I said without a second thought.

“Who,” Amadeus said, examining his third sandwich.

“You know, Kung Fu, with David Carradine. From the seventies?”

“Does he have superpowers.”

“No, he’s a Shaolin Monk –”

“So he’s just a regular guy,” said Amadeus, wiping the mayonnaise blob from his lip.

“No, he’s really not –”

“You’re stupid. You could be anybody in the world and you’d choose someone regular.”

“But that wasn’t what I said –”

“You’re stupid. I’d be Captain Manhattan.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“You don’t know anything. You only know old things. New things are better. Capt. Manhattan’s from that new movie The Watchmen. He’s part of this team of superheroes and they all have superpowers, but he’s awesome. He can do anything. He can grow huge if he wants to, he can fly through space, stop nuclear missiles, anything. He’s totally blue and he walks around naked.”

“I remember that movie,” said Lee. “Wasn’t his name Dr. Manhattan?”

“Who cares,” said Amadeus.

“What about you?” I said to Lee. “Who would you be.”

“I’d turn into a black hole if I could,” said Lee. “Laugh if you like. I didn’t believe it until a few days ago either, but it’s proven with science.”

“What’s proved,” said Amadeus.

“Human beings can become antimatter,” Lee explained. “That’s the stuff in a black hole.”

“How does one do that,” I said. “Become antimatter I mean.”

“It’s simple, anything consisting of matter can become antimatter,” Lee said. “It’s just a question of applying enough impressurization.”

“Juan Carlos knows how to drive a bulldozer,” I said. “A bulldozer can compress things pretty well.”

“No… you don’t understand,” said Lee.

“You guys are stupid,” said Amadeus. “You’d be dead, wouldn’t you.”

“I don’t know about that, either,” said Lee. “Nobody knows what’s inside a black hole.”

“What about you,” I said to Horacio. “It’s an interesting question.”

“Easy,” said Horacio, chewing the end of a leaf of grass. “First chance I’d be John Wayne.”

“Weird, I’ve heard of that guy…” said Amadeus.

“From the cowboy movies,” said Lee.

“The very one,” said Horacio. Juan Carlos moved his ball cap from his face, revealing his infamous smiling white set of teeth.

“Are you serious?” Juan Carlos said. “I never knew that.”

“Very much so serious,” said Horacio and Juan Carlos replied in Spanish.

“There they go,” said Lee, falling back on the grass.

“Last I checked,” said Amadeus to nobody. “We lived in Canada, and that in Canada we spoke Canadian.”

“What about you,” I said, trying to reel them back to us. “Juan Carlos.”

They stopped talking and looked over at me.

“Who would you be.”

“That’s easy for me too,” said Juan Carlos, reaching for the chain he kept round his neck at all times. “Christopher, patron Saint of Travelers.”

“Can I see it?” Amadeus said. The pendant was beautiful. The silver piece depicted an old man with a walking stick in one hand carrying a child on his back.
“In recent times, Christopher has also become the Guardian for taxi drivers,” said Juan Carlos.

“No fooling?” I said and Juan Carlos just smiled. I knew what he meant.

“That’s neat,” said Amadeus. “At least Saint Christopher sort of has powers.”

Amadeus handed back the pendant and the chain sounded heavy dropping into Juan Carlos’s palm.

It was just a trinket, really, a necklace. I could buy something like it at any souvenir shop in Mexico, but even as the thought entered my head I knew it wasn’t true. It was real, authentic. The Saints weren’t something you came across much in the English-speaking world. I didn’t care for any of it; religion I mean, but it was neat to see. The pendant reflecting the light; the cool, hard metal made me realize something. The Catholic way offered something physical and present, and that appealed to me.

“Oh no,” said Lee, falling back on the grass. “He’s back.”

We always saw the dust cloud before we could make out distinct shapes, but it was about the right time of day. The time it took to get from one end of the property to the other always reminded us how vast the place was, more than twenty kilometers of open field and greenhouses in all directions.

Once we heard the music we knew who it was but we let him drive up to the same parking spot he stopped in every day and none of us made an effort to get up, none of us moving. We let him sit in the cab a few minutes with the engine running, a few minutes with it off. We let him get out, close the door so it echoed around the parking lot and place his white striped plastic cooler with the blue lid on the roof, shielding his eyes against the sun to look on the high hill.

“Hey there,” Hogarth said like always when he reached the halfway point of the hill and stopped to lean against the old maple tree that had dug itself into the bank. It didn’t look natural, that tree. It stuck out from the ground sideways and looked as though it’d been fighting gravity for the longest time, and won until now.

“Who would you choose,” Amadeus shouted down at him.

“What’s that,” said Hogarth, reaching us.

“It’s just a game,” said Amadeus. “You can choose to be anyone in the world and these guys chose the dumbest characters. He wants to be Clint Eastwood, that one wants turn himself into a supernova and this guy…” He said, pointing to me. “He wants to be some hundred-year-old Chinese dude with no shoes.”

“Well when you say it like that, yeah it sounds terrible,” I said. “You didn’t let me explain.”

“All right.”

“The reason I chose Caine, the reason he chose that spartan lifestyle is to be free. He goes where he wants, or where he feels is best because he can. He’s not burdened by the fear of losing things, because he knows he doesn’t truly own any thing anyways.”

Lee nodded his head.

“That guy’s stupid,” said Amadeus. “What’s freedom without things.”

“He makes a good point,” said Hogarth. “There’s lots of things out there to be had.”

“Who would you choose,” I said.

“Me,” said Hogarth, stroking his chin. “If I’m honest, I always wanted to be a caterpillar when I grew up.”

“Isn’t it the other way around,” said Lee.

“Julian,” said Juan Carlos. “What is ‘caterpillar?’”

“You know, the worm that turns into a butterfly,” I said.

“Butterfly?”

“The white things with wings always flying around up here, just look.”

It was true. There were tons of them up there. There were so many of them it looked like we were sitting in a field of white flowers. Hogarth’s tramp up the hillside had caused them to startle, and take to the air. Perhaps I was dizzy from sitting down so long but for a moment I was confused, the sky was so filled with white I thought it could be winter.

“I see,” said Juan Carlos. “He is joking, yes.”

“Of course I was joking,” said Hogarth. “Enough of this bullcrap, back to work everybody.” And so, reluctantly, finally, we moved.

 

-:-

The summer hadn’t started out as planned. The promised lifeguard job disappeared, leaving me nothing and scrambling to find enough work to get me back to university for the fall, but I hadn’t been worried. I knew all I needed to do was be open, and that was what I was good at.

“So you think there could be something out there,” I’d said to the girl at the stall in the market.

“There’d be no harm in me asking,” the girl had said, pushing a piece of her hair away as she took down my number. I just smiled at that. Sure enough, four days later I received a call from Mr. Gore about a job on his maintenance team at Shenandoah Farm.

Mr. Gore wasn’t tall but he was built strong like an ox and his stomach was solid muscle, impressive for a man of fifty-five. Mr. Gore was the toughest person alive and had been witnessed on occasion strutting through the fields wearing shorts, T-shirt and flip-flop sandals in dead winter. I wasn’t sure of all the stories, but I knew Mr. Gore had to be tough to survive twenty-one years at Shenandoah.

“See that,” Mr. Gore had said upon our first meeting, indicating a mass of muck and gravel close to the visitors garden.

“It’s in the way,” he stopped, and for a moment I thought he’d finished with me, but I was wrong. He’d paused only to spew a mouthful of sunflower seeds and saliva disgustingly onto the dirt.

I found out later he’d only recently acquired the sunflower seeds as a substitute to smoking. Things became tense when management had to approach him: visitors were alarmed at finding small piles of sticky shells laying about the storefront. Mr. Gore’s initial response was to decry everything and everyone and if customers didn’t like it, well they could go to hell and Mr. Gore knew what this was about and if Freeman thought he could push Mr. Gore around because he was retiring in a few years, well Freeman could just go to hell… Mr. Gore relented after he saw the request was a reasonable one, but the deep-seated rage was a thing I came to know as one of his characteristics.

“Put it in that bin over there,” he’d said, gobbling another handful. “Just let me or Hogarth know.”

“Know what?” I’d said. Mr. Gore was almost gone. The stalks over his shoulder caught the breeze and moved in one motion, as if some great invisible fingers were running across it.

“When you’re full up,” was the answer. I’d hoped that task was a fluke, that once they knew my skill there would be an end to the morose chores, but I was wrong. Mr. Gore’s team existed only to have warm bodies around on notice, precisely for the purpose of brain-dead tasks. My colleagues, however, didn’t mind at all.

“Friends call me Ammo,” Amadeus had said. He told me he was in training to be a police officer.

“Are you working here the whole summer?” He had asked.

“I guess so… Maybe,” I’d said. “This summer’s been full of surprises.”

“Oh well,” Amadeus had said, contentedly heaving another shovel of dirt in the bin. “I’m just happy to have a job.”

“I’m naked,” Lee’d said. Lee cared even less.

“Really,” I’d said, giving him a sidelong glance. The night before it’d rained heavily and Mr. Gore gave us full-bodied rubber suits so we could go about our chores. Lee looked perfectly clothed to me.

“Under the rain suit,” he’d said straight faced. “I’m not wearing anything.”

I never looked at Lee the same again. That was the way Lee talked, there was never a simple way with him. By the end of the first week Mr. Gore and Hogarth truly hated him.

Lee’s water bottle was made of glass and it shattered into a million pieces when Hogarth knocked it off the ladder it was perched on. Mr. Gore came over to see what the ruckus was about and Hogarth blamed the mess on Lee, saying it was his fault, that he’d brought a glass water bottle. Lee tried to explain, pointing out that companies used petrochemicals in the production of plastic water bottles and that it was okay, he had a spare at home but Mr. Gore wasn’t impressed.

“Don’t even think about bringing your shenanigans back here,” Mr. Gore had said. “That shit gets old.”

Rather than working Lee preferred to use his time driving about the fields at breakneck speeds with the company forklifts. He explained that the company had been short sighted in purchasing our forklifts, as those specific models were made for warehouses while the company used them exclusively outdoors.

“Isn’t this great?” I’d heard Lee shout at Amadeus once. Amadeus and Lee bonded and became best friends over the summer as they whizzed between the greenhouses and raced through the fields. I could sometimes spot them by the glint of the sun on their hair as they drove through the fields, plunging in and out of pools of shadow and light. Clouds of dust billowed out behind as they flew back and forth, it seemed over the face of the entire globe.

Hogarth and I didn’t think much on them and we went about our work with or without them. Hogarth seemed a laid back guy and only ever pushed us when Mr. Gore pushed him. Hogarth was Mr. Gore’s right-hand man and although a year younger than I, he was in training to fill Mr. Gore’s position.

“My real name’s Joe, by the way,” Hogarth had said.

“Then why do they call you Hogarth,” I’d asked him.

“After the painter. Mr. Gore came up with it.”

“William Hogarth? From the 18th century.”

“Yeah, it was the only painter’s name Mr. Gore knew.”

“It’s some kind of inside joke.”

“Well sort of. It’s Mr. Gore’s joke, but I was a painter before I worked here.”

“A painter.”

“An artist.”

“Were you good.”

“Judge for yourself.” And he showed me an album of his paintings on his iphone.

“Some of these are really good man,” I’d said, genuinely impressed.

“Those are just pencil sketches from when I was bored in class.”

The one he was most pleased with was a stampede of brown and black and gold horses running through the wild prairie. One picture showed him nervously standing beside the canvas. It was huge. The canvas was as tall as him and twice the length. I felt alive looking at it, alive and out of breath. He said he’d gotten a hundred percent, his final art project for high school and I said I wasn’t surprised.

“Why didn’t you do art school. I mean it man, I’m no artist, but you could’ve gone far.”

“Ha ha, thanks. I really don’t have an explanation. I guess I stopped caring about school. I just stopped going in grade twelve. I still passed all my classes but I just don’t like the idea of having to spend the rest of my life in an office.”

“But you wouldn’t. If people saw your work… Sure, it’s a risk, but like I’m saying- “                                                            “I know; don’t worry, I know. But it’s still a risk, and my parents never had a ton of money and they didn’t set anything aside for my post secondary, they never thought I’d get that far. I would’ve had to work anyways, and when I found this job it was a dream come true. It’s a ton of money; it bought me that new car and installed a new stereo system…”

“But Mr. Gore is retiring soon, isn’t he? And they’re grooming you to fill his position. Is this really what you want to do?”

“Of course not, but it makes things convenient. I mean if I were to go to school I’d have to leave my girlfriend here, and she and her mom really love the new TV I bought them-”

“But is that what you want?”

“I don’t know man, does anybody.”

“I can’t answer that, but I know people should be allowed to follow their dreams. And maybe they’ll fail, and maybe you’ll fail, I don’t know, but at least if that happens you’ll know you tried.”

” Yeah, you’re right,” said Hogarth, but he’d sounded so put out I’d immediately regretted saying what I did.

I realized then that I’d pushed him too hard. I’d thought we were friends and that I should say things like that, but it was a mistake. We never recovered the naturalness from before. But it was easy to fall into conversation like that at Shenandoah, at least during the first four days. We did nothing the first four days of every week. It was tiring, all that talking, but I could tell even before I knew the routine that we were just killing time, not to be taken seriously.

Until Friday, the core group of Mr. Gore, Hogarth, Amadeus, Lee and I couldn’t begin even to contemplate the tasks. We needed help, which was why we waited until Friday. By Friday the Mexicans would be free to help us.

 

-:-

Of course they weren’t all Mexican, that was the name Mr. Gore and Hogarth gave them. They were guest workers, and came from all over Latin America. I’d seen who they were before. I was biking through the country, not paying much attention to anything when I encountered them: a crowd of Latin American field workers on rusty bikes. They were completely silent, none speaking to the other as they rode slowly onwards. I could distinguish the sounds of ill maintained chains grinding and the hum of my tires on the tarmac. I reduced speed. I thought if I continued past them that fast I’d scare them like rabbits. But they never looked up, never changed pace. I went past tentatively and didn’t start to pick up speed until I lost sight of them around a bend and a wall of intense yellow leaves, for it was well into autumn.

That was years before my brief career with Shenandoah. I didn’t understand what they meant at the time, but I remember that image; those dusty riders headed to somewhere I would never know.

“We won’t relate with the Mexicans much,” explained Hogarth. “They do things different.”

They were the fieldworkers while our team mostly did maintenance, but whenever I had the chance I watched them moving slowly between the neat rows and sometimes I imagined their white hats were ships, floating on a great green sea. The flatness of the land made the sky immense above their tiny forms.

It was only Friday when we came together for work on the Road. Shenandoah had commissioned the building of a great Road to stretch from the management complex building, at the far end of the property, to the visitor’s gate at the other. We needed all the manpower we could; there were so many stones and so much land. We knew it would take us weeks that would drag into months, but that first day I was excited; I’d wanted for so long to meet the Mexicans, whom I considered legends.

“I’m Julian,” I said, extending a hand.

“I am Horacio Quiñones,” he said. “We have been sent for.” And he said nothing else, and they immediately bent their backs to the work. I didn’t know how to view my rejected greeting then, but I considered that perhaps Horacio had reasons for his coolness.

Then again, there was relatively little that could be said. The air while we worked on the Road was filled with dust from the mason saw Hogarth used to straighten bricks that didn’t fit perfectly with one another, and his cuttings and hackings caused a great cloud of dust that lingered in the air from morning until afternoon. I once tried to talk in that cloud and was sent instantly into a fit of coughing as millions of tiny shards of stone flew into my mouth.

“What the hell’s the matter with you,” said Mr. Gore. “Oh that’s right, you’ve never worked with the concrete saw.” Mr. Gore surprised me by taking me aside personally and getting me a cool drink.

“‘Didn’t get any in your eye?” Mr. Gore said.

“I don’t think so-” I spluttered.

“Well thank God for that, but what were you thinking? Working over there without any eye-wear. Didn’t you pay attention in science class? You were breathing that shit. ”

“We learned WHMIS, that’s about all I remember.”

“Well no wonder.”

“How do you know all that science?”

“I majored in engineering and minored in turf grass at the Uof G.”

That shut me up for a while. I was really feeling like an idiot. Even the Mexicans seemed to figure the game before me, having tied kerchiefs around their mouths and noses and pulled sunglasses over their eyes. It was a decidedly bad start to the Road.

It was really a horrible experience. The sound when the metal saw made contact with the stone was like a hundred angry bells. The dust cloud went everywhere and afterwards Hogarth spat gray.

But we breathed it, worked in it and lived in it. And we worked, it seemed forever on the Road. Our shadows grew long and stretched as we tired, and the day began its transition to the night.

 

-:-

 

© – Neil McKenzie-Sutter 2013. Click here to view more of Neil’s work or to contact him.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Read Part II of ‘Men of the Earth’ here.

Part III here.

And Part IV.