A fruit tramp family of the 1930s stayed in many places for short periods of time. We arrived, picked the crop, and moved on. That’s why we were called tramps, nomads, and many other things not nearly as complimentary. Our shelters while picking could be the loft of a barn, a converted hen house, or a small sleeps-two tent. On occasion if you were in an especially nice place, you might have a cabin or a large canvas-covered dwelling with a wooden floor. If we had a place of permanency, it was the car or truck that took us to the next job: we might spend the winter in California or pick apples in Washington State. It was all dictated by the season. Packing and moving was as much a part of our life as picking the crop.
This is not a metaphor. Was it before his funeral? During? After? But, whichever time, my sister and I recollected how, the first time we went to my grandparents’ beloved Hawaii, we strolled with Grandpa by the Ala Wai Canal, a wide polluted channel which bounds and drains Waikiki. How he demonstrated his peculiar gift: Lobbing globular, yellowing blobs of spit from his mouth into the murky water. Our wide-eyed awe, delight, as the fish surfaced, eating his saliva, lump by lump. We copied him, leaning as far as our tiny bodies could over the concrete guardrail, but our spit was thin, flavorless. That must be it, because there were no takers breaching the sluggish water. We tried again, years later, before he and my grandmother died, on our second trip to Honolulu, but no fish wanted us, anything of us. I have my theories. Grandpa had diabetes, among other conditions—perhaps his body chemistry had altered his spit, made it palatable, nourishing even, to the fish? More fancifully, was it age? The decades he had on us, thickening, flavoring his saliva with everything he had ever eaten, mountains of rice and filet mignon and lobsters and lambchops marinated with his closely guarded recipe. The Internet says, sagely, that the custom of spitting on bait before fishing is for good luck. What about spit could draw fish to you, to certain death and consumption? People can, in dire situations, use saliva to clean themselves. Perhaps spit can erase the coming danger from the fish, as if purifying bait of fishermen’s culinary intentions. I am thinking now of when I taught my students a poetry collection by a fellow Filipino diaspora writer, how they thought the crucifixions in the poems were metaphorical. Their gaping mouths when I explained that no, in my mother’s native Pampanga, people willingly and literally crucify themselves, a bloody tribute to their adored Christ. I come from a people whose faith is physical, enacted in flesh. Here in the Hawaii my grandparents loved, after they both died within the sacred forty days, one after the other, I can feel them here. Like they’re walking next to me, shadowing each step. Like if I spit into the canal, the water’s surface will break.
This feature is part of our print and online portfolio of writing from the immigrant farmworker community. Read more online or in Issue 26.
Part of a day’s harvest, 1985.
Bradley County, Arkansas
I stood behind the orthopedic specialist and watched the giant monitor where my MRI reports glowed. He traced the contours of my spine, his index finger waving back and forth down the screen. I had gotten his name after a months-long battle with neck and back pain. What started as fire and numbness in my right arm grew into a welter of spasm and neuropathy. This doctor was known as an oracle of back pain. He bragged of being able to guess how people used their bodies just from reading his screens.
The exhaustion of having a nameless, and, therefore, untreatable problem was eroding my spirit. I needed him to find the answer. As he squinted, he rattled off his wins, spotting the bone-wear patterns of golfers, softball players, fiddlers, and software developers. He stopped to identify the small bumps on each vertebra: bone spurs. It felt like he was stalling. Had I stumped him?
The teeth of the excavator are wet. The cage opens, hovers, and grips a mouthful—some floor, some outer wall, some window frame, the glass disappearing with a tiny, tinkling sound.
Now, suddenly, the bedroom of the upstairs flat is revealed. A ragged cut-away, leaving just one perfect wall, wallpapered. Poppies on a purple field. The room, when it was a room, was probably small and ordinary; now, illuminated, it is the envy of all other rooms, the ultimate mezzanine. Light pours in from everywhere and the window frames blue sky.
country music is Black — indigenous — immigrant — almost successfully paved over — i made these poems from 36 common words in top-selling country songs since the ’90s according to a concert ticket corporation