Setting the Record Straight: On the Road’s Terry Tells All

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He did not meet me on a bus, and my name was not Terry. There is no son named Johnny. There was a boy who spent a lot of time hanging around me, little Diego, the son of my friend Juanita, but he wasn’t around so much. You know, we were not just out in the cotton fields daydreaming about someday meeting a handsome fellow, getting married, and having children. We were not just doing that. Mostly we were thinking about the money to be shared out, the three dollars or so we were afforded a day, the stinking canvas tents and hay-tick beds, the long hours and bad backs. I was lucky to be so short. I will not pretend that I didn’t daydream most days away. What else can one do but stare at the sun, sing songs until your head aches, and kill mosquitoes? I didn’t even wear shoes back then, when you work there’s no point.
There is a technique to picking cotton, you learn it fast, but you perfect it slowly. You pick the whole boll. You don’t try to pull the cotton from the boll on the plant. If you break the whole boll from the plant you can just pop the cotton out of it in your hand pinching the boll. That’s it.
Every day is the same until the season ends, and then, of course, we move around a bit finishing up the season at the short-handed farms for a little more money to take back with us. I especially like the vineyards. After that we’re bussed back across the boarder, where we sign up again for next year, waiting out the winter, taking care of all the children our friends had while we were gone.
So there was that season Jack arrived. He wasn’t the first boy who fell on our camp and thought he’d discovered a paradise for a runaway, as there were so many of us teenagers, and some of us were pretty if I do say so myself, caramelized by the sun, but not yet turned to old lady leather. I had thick lips, but not so purple as some. We still had the fat of babyhood on our bones, were still tender, good for the pot—that’s my dad’s joke. Jack arrived, bottle in hand, a sheepish look on his mug, handsome but defeated. The car left him behind, his friend gone with the car. I don’t know what he told you. I never read that famous book of his. They told me it was all lies anyway, gringo machismo.
Jack came in and saw me, he smelled terrible. We work in the field all stinking day. I sweat like ice melting in the sun, but he stunk of something so acid that he was hard to be close to. He was handsome and I was flattered he gazed at me so much. Lupita and Juanita teased me endlessly about this lazy, drunk gringo who sat on the edge of the dried fields singing incomprehensible songs with his bottle and chain-smoking. Then he’d move to the next field with us as we dragged our long bags. He did not get on the trucks as I expected. He stayed, staring but maybe not seeing. He offered us cigarettes at least. Some of the ladies took them, but I didn’t, and he disappeared.
Then the men would return, and the ladies would all go off, and we girls would bunch up and some of us would smoke but mostly we’d just eat and kill mosquitoes and tell stupid stories about ghosts and evil men and murder. We wondered aloud about the weird gringo no one could see now, where did he go? We washed in foot tubs. We were in bed as soon as it got dark, said prayers, looked at our pictures, and we slept like the dead, deep in the ground.
Some men had found Jack, my brother Ramone one of them. I never once heard Ramone say “mañana” in any manner to suggest shirking. We never put the plant or stones in the bags to make them heavier. We never cheated, we always worked hard. Anyway a good scale-man knows how much a bag weighs just by sight.
Jack was entertaining. He taught everyone dance steps, and passed out cigarettes, his shirt sleeves rolled up on his slender arms. We fed him and he made us laugh. He wasn’t so tall, but still much taller than any of us. Every so often he’d stop and squint into the horizon as if expecting something to arrive, like a dog awaiting its master. When nothing appeared he went back to his charming us. One of the men, I think it was Pablo, started to explain to him that all the women were spoken for. This was a lie. I was not married, though I had been in a relationship with a fellow named Jose for a while. I was not interested in Jose any more. But Pablo wanted to act like every lady belonged to him somehow. Later I found out that Pablo had women all over, and the girls had a million stories about Jose too. Anyway, Jack was afraid that Jose might come for him, and Jack started to show how strong he was, did some push-ups, talked about having been in the Navy or something during the war, talked about American football and showed some tackling. But Jose wasn’t coming, and we all just had fun teasing him. And laughing at his antics. Suddenly he began talking to me. The party was breaking up, it was time for work and I looked away and tried not to meet his face. We got our bags and dragged them out into the fields. It was dirty work. When we got to the field to pick I remember Jack stayed close to me, he followed me, when I pulled. He got a few plants ahead and pulled, he got cut, and bled. The plants aren’t pleasant. He kept smiling and waving his arms, helping me, but after an hour or so he was exhausted and he lay on his back in the dirt. “Loco gringo,” I said softly, and he grinned up at me. Some money will come, he said, and he’d give me some he said. He made it sound like he was going to make me rich.
When you read his book, I didn’t, but when you do he’ll tell you that I begged him to stay, that I offered him grapes and love, that I would somehow house him and Ramone together with me, and that I told him I loved him, and wanted to stay with him. But I can’t imagine it. I didn’t need his stink, and him sleeping on top of me in my bed in my tent.
We knew Jack was an obvious hustler and while he and Ramone did get drunk a bit, it wasn’t like he says. We did have some fun in the beginning. Especially when we went round to my friend Tomas’s place. Tomas had more money. I never understood back then how it was, but later I realized it was because he grew and sold marijuana secretly. Then much later I also realized he was pimping some of the girls to the gringo townies. The prettiest ones were at his house in Sabinal. At any rate he could throw a party. It didn’t take Jack long to find it, the marijuana and the whores. From then on it was rare that Jack was back in our tents. He begged me to stay with him on Tomas’s sofa, or if I refused he’d try to get me to sleep with him in the old truck Tomas was perpetually fixing.
I think that maybe Jack thought the rest of Tomas’s friends were my brothers too. For that matter he might have thought Juanita’s mother was my mother, and maybe he thought Tomas’s old father—also a drunk—was somehow my father. For all I know maybe he thought everyone he met in Sabinal was related to me. I certainly didn’t say that. Why would I? He clearly thought Juanita’s kid was my kid, and no matter how many times I tried to explain to him that I was just an adopted big sister, he continually played house with us like Jaunita’s kid was our child. But Diego wasn’t around so much, like I said. It was cute, but I thought Jack was a little bit stupid.
They told me he wrote this story about us, as though we were this little family, as though he were my lover, as though a teenaged Mexican girl working in the cotton fields to get her momma some money for our home back in Gomez, was going to be in love with this silly drunk gringo. Even if he’d met me on a bus, and my name was Terry, does it make any sense to you? What kind of world would that have been? Does he think we were all just waiting for a ridiculous drunk gringo to come save us?
You want to know if we made love, and if he was sweet to me. I honestly don’t remember much. We had little choice but to be intimate in those tents but honestly it didn’t make much of an impression. He was usually so drunk—where did he get all the wine?—that he was asleep as soon as forward motion stopped. Sometimes he was even drunk in the field. Someone said that he claimed to pick fifty pounds of cotton. He never. I promise you, he couldn’t.
When he left I did my best to be sad for him. I remembered how I felt when my friend Omar left from the neighborhood back in Gomez. I tried to recall that feeling, but inside all I was thinking was, goodbye you ridiculous gringo, go have a good life. He told me to come to New York. Sure! I laughed. Right after I bring my momma the money, I’ll take a train or something. He acted like it was a kind of promise. Damn, right! He said. You come to New York! He hugged me again, kissed me sloppily and then I walked away. I don’t remember looking back. Truth was he couldn’t have stayed, he couldn’t do the work, and we weren’t going to keep taking care of him. That son-of-a-bitch sure could put away the wine I can tell you that. He tried to set himself up a place to live in the vineyard, but that didn’t work out. No one really needed him around and he drank and ate everything in sight.
That’s really all there is to tell. I hope that’s alright.

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