“Julio’s shoes were half an inch too small.” That’s how J.A.L. Martinez introduces us to this world of migrant farm work, in “Ate Raw and Often,” where Julio is the newest arrival. A seasoned worker, Jorge, takes Julio under his wing and teaches him what he needs to know to be safe, to succeed. But some things are easier said than done.
Julio’s shoes were half an inch too small. His Abuela had bought them when he entered high school, expecting his growing period to be over, only for him to shoot up an extra two inches by senior year. Now his toes had to curl slightly to fit, the joints pushing up against the roof and scratching slightly with every step. It had worn down all his socks, giving them a rough slit all the way across.
Nevertheless they had both survived the eight-mile walk from the nearest bus stop, the outsole already worn down enough to not leave any remarkable prints in the dirt. He had walked on the tarmac road for the first mile before a truck driver almost hit him. After that he decided the uneven terrain was better than the risk, even if it did make his ankles ache.
He had thought the pain would leave his mind the second he reached his destination, but seeing the slight incline to the orchard’s gate only seemed to make it worse. It didn’t help that he had been walking alongside the orchard for the past mile, passing by other Mexicans and the occasional electrical tower, metal legs craning into an arch. Out of the corner of his eye he would mistake them for an entrance. It was as if the world was toying with him.
The actual entry was framed by two wooden poles. There was no sign, just a gravel road leading to the two-story farmhouse surrounded on all sides by acres and acres of trees. A white man sat in a cheap, fold-out beach chair, a fresh novel held loosely in front of his face in one hand. There was a stack of empty baskets beside him. He took a long sip from his glass of water, a stray stream running down the side of his cheek that he wiped away. Julio had to bite his tongue to stop himself from panting like a dog.
“Where’s your basket?” the man asked. He didn’t look up.
“I don’t have one,” Julio said. His fingers fiddled with Abuela’s old earring, which he kept in his pocket. “Sir.”
The white man rested the book against his leg as he looked up towards Julio, eyes squinting at the bright sun shining behind him. His whole face scrunched in towards his nose. “Jesus kid, you reek.” He waved his hand in front of his face like he was swatting at a fly. “God, and your shirt is soaked. What’d you slip in your own piss?”
The man’s mouth hung loosely, the rest of his face just as scrunched as before while he looked Julio up and down. “Shit, did you walk here?”
Julio felt like correcting him, that while he had walked the last stretch of the trip he had also ridden the bus, but figured the man wouldn’t care. “Sí, sir,” he said instead.
“It’s yes sir.”
Julio nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The man rolled his eyes as he picked back up his book, gesturing vaguely to the baskets beside him. “It’s three dollars a basket, if I don’t see you drop it off you don’t get paid, and I clock out after six, so don’t even think about knocking. And for god’s sake clean yourself off.”
Julio nodded quickly and grabbed the top basket from the nearest stack, almost tipping the rest over in the process. The pebbles in his shoes burrowed into his feet. Maybe it would’ve been better to just take them off entirely.
The man scoffed, a smirk teasing the corner of his lips. “Shoulda just gotten in the truck with the rest of them.”
* * *
All of the trees surrounding the house were picked clean, so Julio picked a row and ran. There were some pears left forgotten in the dirt, and the ones that weren’t squished he would wipe off on his shirt, his fingers pressing against the rough, unripened skin. It felt almost like holding his Abuela’s hands. Arthritis had bent her fingers.
Julio was lit by a warm light as he brushed the dirt off another pear. The sun was bouncing off a nearby electricity pylon, passing right through the orchard like a giant crossing a forest. The different crosses of steel formed a patterned shadow, one that Julio followed until he was directly beneath the tower.
The static in the air made his arm hairs stand on end. It reminded him of the first and last time Abuela had buzzed his head. The other boys at school had held him down and rubbed at it with sock-covered hands until his scalp was raw, the small strands on his head pulled upwards from the static. He thought then that it would pull his hair out completely, leaving him bald. He hadn’t let his hair get shorter than his chin ever since.
The bottom of the pylon was wide, much wider than he had imagined. There were still pear trees here, well-grown and surprisingly untouched. He reached for one of the higher pears first, balancing himself on his toes as he pulled against the end. It was like the fruit was nailed to the tree.
“You’re gonna rip off the whole branch if you pick like that, niño,” another man said, having crossed over into Julio’s row without him noticing. “Look.”
The man set his own basket down beside him, adjusting the blue cap covering his buzzed hair. His shirt stuck to his body with sweat, emphasizing his fat stomach and broad chest as his tawny-brown hand grabbed the pear just below Julio’s.
“If the time is right…” the man said as he squeezed the pear and pulled lightly, the branch being tugged behind it. “No. Mierda. Not that one.” He grabbed another pear and pulled, this one snapping from the branch with little resistance. “If the time is right, la pera will come off easy. That’s how you know it’s mature.”
Despite being about a head shorter than Julio, the man felt larger than him. “Gracias, sir.” Julio said, letting the man drop the fruit in his basket.
The man groaned in disgust, waving his hand in front of his stubbled double-chin. For a second Julio worried he stank. “No me llames así. I’m Jorge.” The man smiled, pushing the wrinkles around his face. He pointed at Julio’s basket. “You got a good amount for dinner.”
“It’s past six, niño. Come on, he will not miss a few pears.”
* * *
The truck was a twenty-nine-year-old red Ford with a thin layer of dried dirt along the bottom. Whatever stickers had been on the back window had been scraped off, with only the sticky backside left to collect dust and the occasional dead fly. The trunk’s bed was hidden behind a thin layer of old blankets, all spilling over onto each other to try and cover every inch of metal. They did nothing for comfort.
Julio leaned back against the truck’s rear window to spread his legs before recoiling from the still-hot metal. His shirt was stuck to his thin torso, but the sweat had slowly been drying since he started following Jorge past the rows of pears and into the empty dirt field behind the orchard, enough so that if he pulled the fabric from his skin it wouldn’t immediately cling back.
“Here,” Jorge said, lifting the basket of pears and setting it down next to Julio, only to stop him before he was able to lift one up to his mouth. “You’ll get sick of them quick if you eat them all like that. Los estamos asando esta noche.”
Julio lowered the pear down into his lap, his thumbs dragging around the skin. “Roasting?”
“Sí. I’ll start el fuego, you can skin them.”
“I don’t have a knife.”
Jorge raised his hand to his chest, mockingly in shock. “Santa mierda niño, every man needs a knife.” He reached into his pant pocket and pulled out an old pocketknife, only slightly rusted at the handle, before snapping it open and handing it over. Julio let the weight settle in his hands for a moment.
“Need me to show you how to use it too?” Jorge said, smiling wide enough to show all yellow-tinted teeth.
“Then start skinning, I’ll yell when the fire’s done.”
Julio’s hands were steady, despite the amount his arm ached, and the pears sliced easily. He thought about the time his Abuela took him to an art museum when he was ten. Some of the varnish had yellowed over time, giving the paintings a dark, brownish filter. He imagined peeling a pear was a lot like restoring a painting, the green outside slowly whittling away to show a bright, yellow-white inside just underneath.
He didn’t even register the steady crackle of burning wood, or the footsteps that approached him from behind, until Jorge’s warm breath was pressing against his neck. “Niño,” he said, leaning over the truck edge to pick up a small chunk of pear Julio had sliced off. “Look at how much you are wasting! Eres demasiado áspero. Here.”
Jorge moved Julio until the only thing between them was their clothes and the side of the truck. His hands were large, slightly wrinkled, and calloused from work. Julio thought that they felt almost like a layer of cement over his own.
“When you peel,” Jorge said, moving Julio’s hands with his own, “you must curve with la pera, let the shape guide you.”
The knife in Julio’s hand curved with Jorge as he directed, the pear’s skin bundling together like a rolled-up ribbon as it was removed. Jorge took the fruit fully from Julio’s hands and rubbed his thumb against the now exposed inside.
“See?” Jorge smiled, like he had won something. “Llano.”
Against the evening sun, Jorge’s eyes seemed to shimmer a brilliant brown. Julio wondered, briefly, if the reflection from the fire made his eyes do the same.
As if from nowhere, three men, wide like Jorge, approached from the orchard. “Jorge?” One called out. “¿Quién es la dama?” He settled in front of the truck, took a long look at Julio, and laughed. “Oh! Sorry marica, you’re so thin! And with that hair, I thought you were some puta!”
Before Julio could retort another man spoke, leaving him with his mouth open. “Where’d you find the stray, Jorge?”
“Aimless,” Jorge shrugged, grin only slightly faded, “wandering the fields like a lost puppy. Figured he could be of use.”
Julio’s face felt like it was on fire, so hot all the sweat would just evaporate. “No,” he started, “mierda, that’s not—”
“Papá?” A young woman, probably only a year or two younger than Julio, interrupted from behind the tree line. She carried a case of beers in her right hand, the cardboard handle ready to give at any moment, and used her left to brush her too-long bangs out of her eyes.
“Aida! Hermosa!” Jorge beamed as he took the beers from her.
One of the men stuck out his tongue in mock disgust. “Asqueroso, you couldn’t get anything good?”
Aida shrugged, the dirt on her tank top blending in with the skin on her shoulders. “Didn’t clean the kitchen today, this was all there was in the garage.” She turned towards Julio, grabbing an untouched pear from his basket while looking him up and down. “Who’s this?”
“Some marica Jorge found.” One of the men chimed in, grabbing a beer and popping off the lid on the truck door, scratching what was left of the paint. “Just showed up today, it seems.”
“And does he have a name?” Aida smirked, the chipped nail polish on her fingernails breaking down as she chewed them.
Julio felt like he was back in school as he answered. “Julio.”
“Well, it’s good to see a younger face, Julio.” She gestured back towards the men. “Gets boring seeing nothing but wrinkled faces.” She laughed as they spouted half-hearted protests before turning to leave. “Don’t stay up too late. Early morning, as always.”
“You’re not going to stay for a drink, hermosa?” Jorge asked, stretching out his tired hands.
“Not tonight papá, Maria wants to sleep early, and she’ll lock me out of her car if I don’t get back before she’s ready.” She gave Jorge a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When Julio was small his Abuela told him that she could feel his pain when he scraped his knee, when he cut himself on an old knife he wasn’t supposed to touch, when he woke up from a nightmare. Julio wondered, as Aida disappeared back into the tree line, whether she could feel the way Jorge’s fingers dug into his gut as he tried to look calm, or the rock he fiddled with beneath his shoe. If, after she had long left, she could hear the way his breath hitched as the exhaustion finally sunk in.
Julio hoped his Abuela could smell the pears as they roasted on the fire. That she could hear the slight sizzle as a drop of juice fell onto the flames. That she could imagine the taste in her mouth. He hoped she didn’t feel anything else.
* * *
That night, when the moon was just a little past its peak, Julio felt the trunk bed dip slightly from shifting weight. His eyes could just barely grasp the silhouette that tried to step around him, noticing the way it almost pressed the full weight of its boot against his leg.
“Niño,” Jorge whispered, “move your feet.”
Julio obliged, curling into a ball and knocking his knee against the metal side. The soft clang echoed around the truck bed before spreading into the sky, though it was only met with one of the sleeping men shifting slightly in response. Julio pulled himself upright as silently as he could while Jorge dropped the few feet from the bed to the floor. In the moonlight, Julio could only make out the edges of the smile on his lips.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to wake you, but I didn’t want to step on you either,” Jorge said.
“Where are you going?” Julio said.
“Ah, solo para mear. Go back to sleep.”
But even in the dim light Julio could still make out the old fanny pack Jorge pressed his hand against, using the same amount of pressure one would on the shoulder of a child. And Julio wondered if, had his feet not been so sore, he would have followed him as he vanished beyond the tree line.
* * *
Julio’s shirt felt like a wet rag around his neck. The heat from the sun was unbearable, more so than the day before, and while Julio’s shirt was already paper-thin, the occasional cool breeze against his bare skin made the extra effort to peel it off himself worthwhile.
His newest basket was almost full, having grown heavy in his hands as he pulled pear after pear. He had already made fifteen dollars today. At this rate, by the end of the day, he felt like he could make thirty more.
With the last pear threatening to slip from the basket and onto the dirt, Julio ran. He had gotten used to the slight hill present beneath each row of trees, but when he had to duck beneath the branches they tended to hit the top of his head, and the scratches they made had slowly started to sting.
He had decided he hated the drop-off the most. The white man always seemed invested in his book as Julio arrived, but Julio could feel his gaze burning into the back of his skull each time he set down a basket. As if at any point Julio could be completely devoured.
“Stop,” the man demanded, pushing himself up from his seat. As he stepped into the light Julio could make out the slightest bit of sweat on his forehead. He pointed at the basket Julio was dangling just off the ground. “Give me that.”
Julio nodded and handed it over. It felt like there was a whole fruit lodged in his throat. “Hmph.” The man grunted, closing his eyes and reaching into the basket, knocking off a few pears into the dirt in the process. He pulled out one of the pears from the bottom, trailing his fingers along the smooth skin. His hand hovered in front of his mouth for just a moment, pear almost ready to squish from the strength of his grip. And then he bit it, fresh juice running down past the corner of his lips. Julio’s mouth would have watered if he had any to spare.
“It’s not ripe.” The man scowled, letting the pear drop from his hand. The leftover juice turned the dirt a darker brown. It would be a feast for the ants. The man went back to his chair. “I’m not paying for these.”
“What?” Julio said before he could stop himself.
“I said,” the man growled, book already open in his lap. “I’m not paying for those. They aren’t ripe. Get back to work.”
“Sir, you can’t—”
“I can,” the man interrupted, calmly, turning the page in his book. He glanced up at Julio, lips pressed into a thin line, eyes unwavering. “Get back to work. Don’t make me say it again.”
* * *
When Julio returned, just a few minutes past six, the man was already gone. He set his basket down, his shoulder aching so strongly he could almost hear the muscles strain. It reminded him of the first time he fell from a tree. He had tried to climb to the top to impress the other boys in his class, but had placed too much weight on too small of a branch.
It snapped beneath his feet, and he could still remember the way his broken arm had flared up in pain, the muscles beating just as strong and fast as his heart. His Abuela hadn’t even scolded him, just made him jokingly promise to stay away from trees as they rode the bus to the hospital.
“You shouldn’t feel too bad,” Aida said, resting a hand on his shoulder that shook him from his daze. He realized he had been staring at the discarded pears, their bodies almost sinking into the ground like fatigue had run through them. “He does the ripe-fruit-porquería to everyone. Finds the hardest one and eats it to fuck you over.” She looked Julio up and down quickly, eyes stalling on the streams of sweat oozing out from his rolled-up shirt. “You look like shit, por cierto. Here.”
She handed him a used paper cup, drops of water running off the brim from the sudden movement. Julio gulped down half of it before he pulled back, toes digging into his shoes as he frowned.
“It tastes weird,” he said, raising the cup back to his lips.
Aida chuckled, dry like the air. “It’s from the hose. C’mon, follow me.”
Julio chugged what remained of his water as he obeyed, crushing the cup in his hand before shoving it in his pocket. As they walked the dirt beneath them slowly grew wetter, forming a river of mud up to the back of the farmhouse, a hose laying limply at the source. One window sat just above and through it Julio could see the full kitchen. Everything seemed stocked.
A chicken squawked nearby, drawing Julio’s attention away. Just a few feet farther down the back side of the house was a small coup encircled by a chain-link fence, the occasional towel hanging over it. A couple of chickens ran around inside as if they had somewhere to be. It reminded Julio of when he used to peek over his neighbor’s fence whenever they got newborn chicks. He had tried to take one when he was very little, but it ran away.
“Take off your pants or they’re gonna be soaked,” Aida said, holding the hose half-heartedly. Julio blinked. “Crecer, don’t look at me like that. Do you want a baño or not?”
Julio did as she asked, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. “Why are you helping me?”
She gave him a childlike smile, as if she were reminding herself of her age. “When I started, I was as scared as you. Mierda, I hadn’t even hit puberty yet. We all got to look out for each other right? No one else will.”
The water was freezing as it ran down Julio’s body, a steady stream from the top of his head to his feet. The dirt that had gathered on him stained the water brown. It almost looked like his own skin was washing off. He tried and failed not to shiver.
Aida dropped the hose back on the ground and shut it off. She tiptoed around the mud stream and grabbed one of the towels off the fence, the cloth briefly snagging against the metal before pulling free. Before Julio could protest she had draped it over his head, rubbing violently against his scalp to dry all his hair. His Abuela used to do the same.
Julio’s teeth clattered. “C-can you cut my hair?” he said, surprised to hear himself asking. “And my ear. Can you pierce it?”
Aida draped the towel on his shoulder before crossing her arms, staring at him for a moment. “Why?” she finally asked.
Julio shook his head. “Please.”
He was thinking about home. About the boys who would tease him after school. About fiddling with her earrings at the dinner table. About how far away he was now. When he stared at Aida, his eyes were unfocused, as if he were looking somewhere else in the distance. She just nodded her head.
* * *
That night, when Jorge once again disappeared behind the tree line, Julio peeked his head just over the truck bed and watched.
* * *
Aida met him at sunrise. Her hands were dry and firm. She pressed them against Julio’s head, directing him to turn so she could clip away the sides. Julio didn’t ask where Aida had gotten the clippers from. He just watched, silently, as the hair chunks gathered at his feet. He wondered if it’d make good fertilizer.
With the sides buzzed, Julio’s hair was almost a mullet, with a line of uncut hair still stretching from his bangs to his lower neck. He danced his fingers against the sides, playing, childishly, with the hair stubs.
“Thanks,” he said, after trying and failing to find his reflection in the window. “It looks good.”
Aida shrugged. “It’s not even. But if I keep trying to fix it I’ll probably just make it worse.”
Julio shook his head. It felt lighter. “I like it.”
The cold hose water rushing against Julio’s earlobe felt like an ice cube pinching his skin, but Aida had insisted that he numbed it. To try and distract his mind from the cold, he watched as she struggled to keep an old lighter lit against a sewing needle. The metal shone against the sun before briefly burning into a bright orange.
Aida laid him on the dirt, head rested against a folded towel. From where he lay the needle looked almost like a knife ready to cut him open. He shut his eyes as it pierced through his right earlobe, smooth metal surrounded on all sides by his own flesh, though there was no pain to go with it.
Aida pushed the needle through fully before quickly swapping it with the earring, the small metal hoop shaking as Julio lifted himself from the ground. It started to sting slightly as the numbness wore off.
* * *
“¡Oye, pendejo!” Jorge snarled, smacking Julio over the head with his own discarded shirt. “You think just because your skin is brown you don’t burn? Even la fruta can burn you cabrón!”
Jorge pressed his palm against Julio’s back, the reddened skin briefly fading away from the pressure as he shook his head. Julio arched his spine instinctively, sucking in through his teeth in pain.
“Ridículo.” Jorge muttered, climbing into the truck bed. “Come on, lie down.”
Julio stood there, shifting his weight between both legs slowly as he watched Jorge pull off his shirt, draping Julio’s sweaty one over the truck’s side. His belly pressed into his thighs as he sat on his knees, fat jiggling slightly as he rolled up his top into a makeshift pillow. In the dim light the sweat on his skin made it glisten.
“You gonna stand there all day, niño?” he asked.
Julio shook his head and climbed up, laying his back against the rough blankets covering the bed.
“No, no.” Jorge laughed at him. “Dale la vuelta. Come on.”
Julio sighed, slowly pulling himself up and turning himself around so his stomach was on the bed. The side of his face squished into the rough fabric of Jorge’s shirt. The thing reeked of him.
Jorge pulled a plastic bag from his jean pocket, picking out a few slices of cut aloe vera before shoving it back in. He squeezed the gel out onto his hands, letting the plant’s teeth gently poke into his palms before tossing them into the dirt. The gel spread across his fingers with a quiet squish as he scooped it, dropping the cold substance on Julio’s skin without warning.
Julio arched his back instinctively, and his body was quickly pushed back down. Jorge’s rough hands pressed into his burn, lathering his lower back before trailing up his spine. His fingers tickled the ends of each hair resting on Julio’s neck. Julio was glad he was lying on his stomach so Jorge couldn’t see his groin.
Julio couldn’t take the silence. “It—”
“Stings, I know.” Jorge cooed, fingers massaging his shoulders. “Relaja.”
“It’s the worst one I’ve ever had. Everything hurts. Moving, talking.” He inhaled sharply, hair on ends from the goosebumps. “Joder, even breathing.”
Jorge chuckled. “Then hold your breath.” He trailed his hand around Julio’s ribs slowly, before they snagged against the skin. “Mierda.” He shook his head. “Estas pelando. Give me a second.”
Julio lifted his head from the shirt, turning onto his side to watch Jorge flip open his knife. “What are you doing?”
“¿Qué parece que estoy hacienda? I’m going to cut it off.”
“Should I rip it off instead? Recuéstate, I’ll be quick.”
Julio sighed and nodded, pressing his face back into the rolled-up shirt. He shut his eyes tight as Jorge slipped the knife under the peeling skin, the smooth metal sliding along his flesh with ease. He worried Jorge’s grip would slip, that he’d end up bleeding onto the truck bed, but Jorge’s movements were practiced. He could only be harmed on purpose.
* * *
Muscle memory had turned Julio into a machine. He’d rock forward slightly onto his toes, reach his hands up into the nearest tree, and pick out pears two at a time before dropping them in his basket. He’d work his way down, clearing out a tree in just over a minute, provided most of the fruit were ripe.
Jorge threw a wrench into that machine without warning. One afternoon, while reaching for the last pear on a tree, Jorge picked it out from right under him. He smiled at Julio as he dropped it into his basket, grin so wide it seemed like it’d be more work not to smile.
“C’mon niño,” he said, gesturing to another tree. “Let’s get the next one.”
* * *
Sometime, when the moon was just a little past its peak, Julio felt a hand grip his shoulder. The touch was light, like they hadn’t decided if they wanted him to wake up. Nevertheless, Julio opened his eyes to Jorge leaning over him, the truck bed creaking slightly under his feet. He gestured at him to stay quiet as he hopped over the side, an old fanny pack strapped tight around his waist.
Jorge nodded his head back towards the trees, extending his hand out for Julio to take, arm hair shining slightly from the moonlight. It felt like Julio’s heart would explode it was beating so fast. His bare feet landed in the dirt with a soft thump, dust settling under his calloused soles. Jorge grabbed his arm by the wrist and tugged, leading him through the trees, branches blending together in the dark into archways.
Before Julio had realized it the trees had transformed into metal. A pylon swayed over them in the wind, the buzzed sides of Julio’s head standing out on ends like they were ready to be pulled into the sky. Jorge let go of his wrist, smile glittering like metal.
“Recuerdas, niño,” Jorge said, “where I first met you?” Julio nodded. It was like the air had clogged his throat. Jorge unzipped the fanny pack. “Mira.”
In the center of the pylon, as the steel directed the light, it was almost as if it converged in the middle. The electricity danced in the air as Jorge lifted up the glass from his pack, the lightbulb switching on with a staticy crack as his arm extended into the air. To Julio, it was like Jorge had turned it on himself.
“See,” Jorge said, light shining on his face. “In México, I was electricista. My last night, I took this bombilla with me, so when I work for myself I can display it for everyone. Like esperanza.” He looked at Julio, the bright bulb reflected in his eyes as he cupped his cheek, soft like he was carrying glass. “You can be there too, niño, you learn quick.”
Illuminated by the bulb, Julio could have sworn that he shone.
* * *
When Julio was little his Abuela had asked their neighbor if he could see their chickens long before he had tried to steal one for himself. The man had reluctantly agreed, having caught Julio a few times watching them from his yard. Julio could still remember trying to hold one in his arms as it struggled, beating against him with his wings.
It felt the same at the orchard, as a chicken struggled beneath his grip. Aida had told him to help her kill the biggest one after he had dropped off his last basket. He held it tight on a fold-out table, neck exposed between his hands as Aida hovered a butcher’s knife above it. The cut was clean and swift, but blood had still splattered against Julio’s hands and around his mouth. He hated the taste of it on his lips.
“Sorry,” Aida said, grabbing a towel from the fence and cleaning her own hands. “You can take the legs, if you want.” She nodded her head towards the house. “He never eats them.”
Julio shrugged and pulled out his knife, working through the legs like he was cutting through a log. He remembered when his neighbor had left him chicken legs to roast. He had gnawed on the talons greedily with his Abuela, rough skin against their teeth.
“Here,” Aida said when he had finished, handing over her used towel. His overgrown fingernails caught against the loose strings, but his eyes were locked on her wrist.
“What’s—” he said before he could stop himself, staring at the gold, chain bracelet dangling loose just beneath her palm.
Aida pulled her hand away, twisting it behind her back. “It’s nothing.”
“I don’t steal jewelry, marica, only beer.” She straightened her back. “And you’ve never had a problem with that.”
“Then—” Julio’s face fell like it was burdened by the weight of a brick. “You, you didn’t—”
“I don’t ask you where you got your knife, do I?” She snapped, pushing past Julio’s shoulder. “You’re too fisgón, marica. There are some things no one needs to know.”
* * *
Jorge hung the bulb by a string, tying it tightly to the centermost tree beneath the pylon, letting it hang like fruit. Julio sat on his flannel as he snapped his knife open, trailing his thumb over the rusty handle before pushing it closed and starting again. He turned it in his hand, watching the light bounce off it as if it could speak.
“You’ve been quiet,” Jorge said, sitting beside him. “¿No te gusta?”
Julio smiled softly. “It’s not that. I’m just thinking. Mucho en mi mente.”
Jorge nodded, placing a firm hand on Julio’s shoulder and pushing down. “Acuéstate conmigo.”
The shirt was not long enough for their bodies, but their jeans protected both of their legs from dirt as they laid down. Julio could feel the curve of Jorge’s belly press into his stomach, the warmth of his breath pushing against his face. For a moment, there was nothing in the orchard but them.
“Tell me,” Jorge said, rubbing his thumb against Julio’s neck, fingers playing idly with his earring. “Soy todo oídos, niño. Don’t bite your tongue till it bleeds.”
Julio felt like the sky could lift him. He remembered when he lost his first fight in high school, the kicks to his stomach that made the butterflies rattle. He laid in the bathroom through the next period, the teachers not listening when he tried to explain later on. In some ways, he had felt the same there beneath the metal tower. In some ways, he felt completely different.
“My Abuela,” he began, a sob curling in his throat like vomit. “She used to tell me stories of a California beach. She was born there, in the back of an old car. No hay registros. She told me she will go back there to die in las olas.”
To Jorge, it felt like he was staring at the sun.
Julio curled his fingers around Jorge’s forearm, holding it down on his neck like a lifeline. He sighed out his mouth with enough force to shake the leaves. When Julio spoke again, to Jorge, it felt like a crashing wave.
“I will get her there.”
* * *
Julio couldn’t get the thought out of his head, even before it happened. The job was almost over. A few days and they’d all leave the orchard behind for somewhere else. He was so close he could taste it, or maybe that was just his salty sweat.
When Julio walked behind the farmhouse he was looking for Aida. He wanted to extend a branch. To apologize. To let her yell at him until she got tired enough to stop. He found Jorge instead, fist clenching the hose so tight it looked like it might snap.
Julio didn’t need to speak. The crunching dirt beneath his feet was enough to make the other man turn. Jorge’s eyes were a bright, puffy red. Two solid streaks of tears rolling past his cheeks from either side, teeth bared like a beast.
“You,” he whispered, just loud enough to hear, voice quivering from rage. “You knew about this.”
Julio stepped back on impulse. “What are you—”
“¡No me mientas Julio!” he yelled, pulling Julio down by his shirt till their faces almost crashed. Julio could feel his spit as he screamed. “¡No me dijiste! Just sat there while we, while I…”
Jorge pushed him on the ground, towering over him like a giant, his shadow providing a brief respite from the sun. He snarled, chest heaving as he opened his mouth, yet no words came out. He shook his head, tears and sweat mixing on his skin as walked back into the trees, his shoulders raised tensely past his neck.
Julio could have laid there for the rest of his life and he still wouldn’t catch his breath. So he pushed himself from the ground, palms digging into the pebbles beneath him. His chest heaved so hard he thought the skin would tear.
It felt like it had been hours before he was able to turn and look through the window, but the sun never changed in height. It shined almost perfectly through, forming a spotlight on the kitchen floor. Julio had to hold himself to stop shaking.
Aida sat back atop the counter, eyes closed as she gripped the granite, lips parted just enough to slip a penny in. The white man was leaning into her, his fingers wrapped around her wrists as he ate hungrily from her thighs.
Julio had turned away before they could finish. Had missed when he kissed her after, when he slipped her a twenty-dollar bill, when she spit into the sink. He had already started running, a hole forming in the sole of his shoe.
* * *
The morning sun was harsh against Julio’s skin. He could feel it digging into him like talons, like how his own fingernails pierced the pear’s skin as he picked it. His basket was only half-full when he heard the scream. It made the birds take flight.
He broke out from the treeline in front of the farmhouse and saw the white man pressing his back against the wall, trying to stop himself from twitching. He reached his shaking fingers between his lips, the nails stained as he gripped a piece of glass and tugged. His sobs were muffled from the blood as he dropped the piece in the dirt among the other five. He wasn’t even halfway through.
Julio barely even registered Jorge as he stood there, his fanny pack unzipped, his full basket discarded on the ground alongside the bulb’s cap. He was calm, his brows narrowed as he turned to walk past, cold eyes meeting Julio’s for just a moment.
Julio followed him towards the truck as everyone else arrived. Silent except for one question. “What will happen to him?”
Jorge huffed out his nose. “¿Qué? ¿Un hombre así?” He shook his head. “He’ll probably need some stitches. Hopefully they won’t forget his mouth.”
* * *
Julio laid in the truck bed during the drive, spine just an inch away from Jorge’s. He could almost feel the static dance between them. The other men had grabbed as many pears as they could carry and threw them in before they left. With every turn Julio could feel another crash against his skin, like someone had thrown it at him in spite.
When the sun had started to set they pulled the truck off the highway. Wheels knocked against loose rocks and dirt as they drove away from the road. He curled his legs in to stop himself from bouncing over every bump, but it did little to help.
Aida was the one to tell them to get out after they had parked, bracelet missing from her wrist, replaced by a line of stained green skin. Julio pulled himself up just to be pushed onto his knees.
Jorge handed him a pear. “Empezaré el fuego, you can skin them.”
Julio nodded, eyes turning to watch as Jorge dropped himself down onto the sand. Aida turned away, walking off down towards the shoreline with the other men. Julio listened to the waves as they crashed, the crackle of fire as it just started to burn, the quiet slice of the pear as he carved off its skin. He turned the bare, pale fruit in his hand. Against the light of the setting sun, it almost seemed to shine like a bulb.
J.A.L. Martinez is a graduate of Emerson College where he majored in creative writing. His work has been published in Black Swan Cultural Magazine and Stork Magazine. He currently lives in San Diego with his beloved dog, Brenda. You can follow him on Twitter @Jacoby_Rivers and on Instagram @jacob.a.l.martinez.