Today, we’re thrilled to share J.A.L. Martinez’s “Ate Raw and Often,” the newest entry to our New Voices catalog! “Julio’s shoes were half an inch too small.” That’s how Martinez introduces us to this world of migrant farm work, 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.
“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.”
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.”