When spring trotted out like a lamb, Rigoberto worked like a lion. Today, Rigoberto, or Beto, woke up at dawn to a misty morning marine layer. He gave thanks to Christ for this blessing as he left the tiny bedroom of his mobile home. He passed the crucifix over the doorway, gave a sign of the cross, and resigned himself to pick the most strawberries. His strong back and stocky stature kept him close to the ground, and with the good weather on his side, nothing was stopping him from collecting the most baskets of ruby-red strawberries.
Beto took his café de la olla with two scoops of sugar and looked out the small window of his home, watching the other farmworkers set out for a beautiful collection day. His wife, Daniela, and their two sons slept soundly down the hall.
In his teal Toyota pickup, he backed out of space 429 of the mobile home park, thinking about Beto Jr. and Juan Carlos. When did they get so lanky? His suegro was a lanky man too; no doubt it came from the other side of the family. Why were they always eyeing screens? They didn’t look up when he walked in the door after a long, dusty day in the fields.
Beto thought of the bakery he hoped to stop at after work that day. On days when he collected the most baskets, he would bring his sons some sweet bread. “Papá was one of the best today,” Daniela would say, while Junior and Juan Carlos’s brown eyes rounded and eagerly followed the grease-stained bag of pan dulce, bouncing and awaiting their treat, like the fluffy cubs Beto felt they were in his arms.
But pan dulce no longer gave their eyes that awe-inspired sparkle. No. Money gave their eyes that sparkle now. Dinero, like all the bosses and patrones, money gave all their dark eyes a sparkle. If money was what Junior and Juan Carlos needed from their father, Beto would gladly face another day of sun and sweat for them. He wore the fleshy scar growing over his eye, from the sun, like a badge of honor, nothing more than the price a working father paid when there were two growing boys to keep.
Ahora si, Beto thought as he passed rows of dirt, dust, and tractors that stretched out far past the housing park and out toward the air force base and the golden coastal hills. A beaded rosary dangled from the mirror as he drove along a two-lane road past acres of low green leaves. If he drove fast enough, he couldn’t see the bits of red peeking out. But he knew they were there. He knew every possible hiding place of a strawberry. Season after season his lion’s eye would hunt out them out and snatch them up in a flash of his claws.
Beto parked his truck along one meticulously cultivated row of strawberries, got out, and joined his colleagues near the collection truck where they were to begin the harvest. The blessed marine layer still hung over him. But even in the absence of sun, he zipped up his royal blue hoodie and kept the hood over his head to keep the UV rays off of his neck and face.
Beto heard the foreman commence their labor. The small of his back rounded as he crouched over the raised rows of berries. Quickly he reached in for the harvest and twisted the berries off their stems. He purposefully kept his thumb and ring fingernails extra long as they pinched the stems, while his pointer and middle fingers cradled the berry and his wrists twisted them free. With his knees bent, back bent, neck low, arms out, Beto shuffled down the long line of green and piled the little strawberries on top of each other in his basket. Once full, he ran with his spoils over his shoulder to the collection truck, where the ponchadora would inspect the quality of his box and mark his $1.90 earned.
A rhythm of work. For hours his back was bent, nails digging in, wrists twisting, running, collecting as many strawberries as he could.
Indeed, Beto did collect the most boxes. Daniela greeted him home that night with a simple beef stew, and the family ate together. Beto eyed the greasy bag of pan dulce he bought, but it lay untouched on the kitchen table.
The joints in his hands and knees ached at home. They ached every morning and every night now. In the small bathroom of the trailer, Beto grimaced as he felt his swollen wrists in his hands. He felt Daniela lay a delicate hand on his shoulder, and he looked at her in the mirror. “Anda al doctor,” she said. But Beto didn’t listen; he didn’t need a doctor. He knew how to find relief from these aches. Relief came with the constant clawing and twisting at the little red fruit. His knees ached stretched out flat on his bed. His back ached against his soft couch cushions. He needed to be bent double over the fruit to feel better.
“No, Daniela, no puedo, I can’t go to the doctor. It’s just the passage of time. There’s only so much of it. I need to work while I can,” said Beto.
He woke before dawn the next day to another God-given blanket of mist over the fields. The marine layer mornings were fewer and farther between than when he first started working in the fields as a boy. Beto begrudgingly took the day-old sweet bread out of the greasy bag, lumped two scoops of sugar into his fresh coffee, and ate his breakfast alone in the predawn silence.
Again, back at the misty fields, Beto put the hoodie over his head, gave his arms a swift shake, and prepared for the work. He was anxious to get on with picking on this crisp, cloudy morning. But his mind was not settled. Maybe he felt hungry? He couldn’t keep his mind on track. He felt jittery but also like he was moving in slow motion. As he bent over and shuffled down the row of strawberries, he rolled his ankle in a shallow hole in the dirt. He almost lost his balance, but managed to keep his box of berries upright and intact.
“Beto, estás bien?” One of the other workers noticed his lion’s pace was markedly subdued. He assured them he was fine as he got up and tore another berry from its stem with a flourished twist. They suggested that his blood sugar was low and that he drink some orange juice. “Tómate un jugo de naranja, te ayudará.”
Maybe my blood sugar is low, Beto thought as he got back to work and the uncharacteristic lethargy lingered. He felt slower as he reached in picking the fruit. He waited until he had picked and delivered another full basket of berries before approaching the man in the food truck in the wide lane nearby for an orange juice. Beto bought a cold bottle. He knew this would put him behind. He wouldn’t bring Junior and Juan Carlos as much money today. He’d have to make it up tomorrow. He hoped there would be clouds tomorrow too.
While he drank the juice, Beto thought about asking Daniela to make him a doctor appointment. At least she’d be happy. He hated the cold white linoleum floors and stiff chairs at the clinic. He despised the impatient young doctor who never looked at him; the doctor only ever looked at the translator in the room before making orders and walking out with a nod.
More deflated with this thought, but determined to overcome his slump, Beto brought himself back to the long rows of berries. Bending over, he continued his labor. He doubled over the berries with his head hanging low toward the ground. His heavy feet pounded along the long line of fields while the sun shone bright and strong over the navy hoodie.
The sun? Beto turned his sweaty face up toward the sky. Sure enough, the sun had started to peek through the clouds. He had to work before the sun came out. The marine layer was keeping him on his feet. He knew he did not have enough energy to work in full sun; his body was telling him so.
Faster he moved with a sense of uncertain panic. How many boxes could he pick today? Faster his wrists snapped the green stems of the berries. Faster he ran to the ponchadora. Faster came the sweat down his brow, burning his eyes. Faster his breath came.
Again, crouched over the heaps of earth, Beto’s hand brushed up against tough green leaves, finding a strawberry underneath. He grasped the strawberry hard. He felt its dimples and smooth, tiny seeds. He didn’t pick it. The orange juice seemed to sit heavy in his stomach, yet his eyes couldn’t sit still. His vision started to darken and close in around him. Beto squatted low and bowed his head toward his knees. “Qué pasa, wuey?” he said to himself under the hoodie with his eyes shut tight in confusion.
Then, the earth moved, shifted, yawed around him. He kept his eyes shut and tried to balance himself as he got up from his squat. When he stood, everything went black.
Beto collapsed onto the earth with a thud. A splash of strawberries rolled around him in the dust.
The foreman sent for a paramedic. The paramedic sent him to the ER. The ER nurse pricked his skin, took his blood, and gave him shots. In his hospital room, Beto and Daniela received instructions that he was to take his own blood and pinch himself every day with needles for the rest of his life. His body could no longer eliminate the sugar piling up in his blood. The nurse told Beto he couldn’t eat his wife’s hand-flattened, floury tortillas. Por diós!Their words were needles enough.
“Malditos doctors,” said Beto to Daniela in one of the stiff chairs next to his hospital bed. “There is only so much spring left. Soon, all the strawberries will be picked.” Beto might be slower, but he wanted to get back to the fields as soon as possible while it was still spring. The summers were becoming unbearably hot and undeniably longer. He didn’t know how much time in the fields he had left in him.
“Beto, look around!” said Daniela. “You’re a lion of a man tamed in an unnatural zoo. Please, take care of yourself.”
“I do. I do take care of myself. God takes care of me. I need to get out of here! Get these damn tubes off me.”
“No. No. You stay,” Daniela said. “You stay and you pinch yourself every day with these needles, and if you work less, I’ll work more.”
“You?” said Beto. “Then who will raise our sons? I barely see their eyes anymore.”
“Junior is thirteen. He can bring Juan Carlos home after school.”
“Mierda? Yes! Mierda to your body if you don’t help it. Mierda to the damn fields. Mierda to money. Slow down, Beto. For me.”
Beto looked long and hard at Daniela’s tight jaw and straight lips.
“I’ll bring in less money if I can’t bring in the boxes like I used to,” said Beto, looking at the IV taped to the top of his hand.
“Bueno. I’ll find something to bring in a little more.”
Beto couldn’t put a wall up against Daniela. She was his rock. In tacit acknowledgment, he stayed silent in lieu of a reply.
Alone that night, as he heard the soft beeps of the hospital, hot tears welled in the corner of his eyes. Nobody had ever told Beto to take care of himself. He was a man whose work was fulfilled in the name of others. He worked for his father, then for Daniela, and then for Junior and Juan Carlos. His body moved in blistered succession until it couldn’t. Now, Daniela was asking him to work less for her? What kind of husband would he be then? What would Junior and Juan Carlos think?
Beto prayed that when he was discharged, it would be another cloudy morning.
Elise Swanson Ochoa’s work is forthcoming in Los Angeles Poets for Justice. She holds a BA in Spanish and linguistics from UCLA and a Doctor of Optometry degree from Southern California College of Optometry. Elise is an optometrist for a multi-specialty clinic serving the farmworkers of rural Ventura County. She currently attends Creative Writing courses through UCLA Extension.