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Making Things Right

by Mike Florian

Johnny walked into the crew shack and was met with hostile glances, a waft of stink, and no place to sleep. He had just been hired, and the men lolling in their bunks looked at him as another share out of their pockets. Mr. Pfieffer, as they referred to the owner of the tobacco fields, didn’t think they picked fast enough to keep filling the kilns, so he had hired Johnny, a man as green and innocent as the shoots that grew in May.

“I’m to share a bunk with Dixon until mine comes tomorrow.”

“No you’re not,” said Dixon from the corner of the smoke-filled room.

“That’s what I was told.”

“I said no,” said Dixon raising his voice, a young bull of a man. He had been in the fields almost seven days now, a veteran to this bunch. Mr. Pfieffer didn’t know one man from the other yet and didn’t know Dixon from the rest. He just remembered the name.

“He meant me,” said an old man from the other corner. “You can put your stuff over here until they get another cot.” The old man, a curer from Simcoe, who’d been working this farm for years, quickly sized up young Johnny standing in the doorway. A lone light bulb hung in the center of the bunkhouse. It was dark outside at nine o’clock on that hot August evening.

Johnny made his way around the room, nodding to the men resting on their cots. He dropped his duffel next to the old man’s bunk.

Joe, the old man, shifted over to one side and said kindly, “Here, you’re welcome here for the night. It’s all right, I’m harmless. Pfieffer, he’s good at his word. You’ll have a cot tomorrow.” Joe spit some brown juice into the spittoon by his side, an opened-top, empty can of Coke.

Johnny lay down carefully next to Joe. The bunkhouse grew quiet. Hot crickets made loud rubbing noises outside. A deep sigh and a fart came from the adjacent barn where the old white mare rested in her stall. Johnny listened through the thin plywood separating the bunkhouse and the horse. The soft sound of her chewing slowly put him to sleep.

Dixon was the lead man of this group of five as they made their way, side by side, down the thousand-yard long rows of the tobacco field. A few inches behind him was the horse, wheezing in the heat, pulling the long, wooden box sitting on steel runners.

During this first week, the men picked the lowest rung of leaves. The pickers were hot and the leaves were wilting. When each had an armload of sticky leaves, they would walk quickly up to the deep sled, gently place the load into the wooden structure and then hurry back to where they had left off.

Dixon took great pleasure in working as fast as he could. The faster he picked and moved down the row, the longer each man had to run just to keep up. Occasionally, and to the delight of the others, the old mare shook her massive head to shoo the flies away, and by doing so, hit Dixon, and sent him sprawling, face first, into the dusty, flour-like dirt. Everyone would catch up and, indeed, would even pass the waiting horse and sled. Dixon would be furious and take a swing at the animal, but she anticipated it every time and stretched her neck to be easily out of his reach.

Mr. Pfieffer sat and waited on his tractor at the end of the row. When the men finished, he switched the full sled for an empty one, hosed the boys down with water from the forty-five gallon drum he carried on the tractor, and let them drink their fill. When they were done drinking, he pulled the box full of leaves back towards the kilns where the women and Joe hung the tobacco to dry.

As Mr. Pfieffer watched and waited at the end of each row, he quietly timed the crew and compared them to the many that picked his fields over the years. At this early stage, this one wasn’t bad, he thought.

The end of the work day depended on how fast the crew picked. If they could finish a kiln by two in the afternoon, the day ended at two. If the day was hot and humid, and the leaves were wilting on the stalk, the day could finish at five. Once the crew started at dawn, a kiln had to be loaded, rain or shine.

On this particular day, the men finished at three. It was a good, solid group and, except for the fact that Dixon did not like Johnny, they all got along fairly well. As usual at the finish of the work day, the five pickers walked slowly to the quarry, to the cool, comforting water.

“Where you from?” Dixon asked Johnny as the two of them began to scrape the thick, black tar off the right side of their bodies.

Johnny didn’t answer right away. It was a difficult question and he knew more would be coming. He sensed a trap. “Mr. Pfieffer hired me a couple of days ago, and here I am,” answered Johnny.

“I know that, you dumb sonofabitch. I wanna know where you’re from,” Dixon repeated.

“Leave him alone,” one of the others offered.

“Go to hell,” said Dixon.

Johnny got up and moved away from Dixon. It was difficult for him to talk properly after one or two sentences. Things didn’t come easy for him that way. He picked up another stick and continued to scrape the side of his torso. He was almost clean and ready to jump off the quarry wall and into the blue water twenty feet below. Today was a good day, he thought. He had nearly kept up to Dixon.

In his head Johnny tried to formulate an answer to Dixon’s question but it faded away as he neared the edge of the small cliff. Without fear he jumped, and when he hit the water he surfaced and swam with clean, strong strokes. The men watched the muscles glisten in Johnny’s back and arms as he moved effortlessly through the quarry water. The cool feeling made Johnny forget the burning tar, Dixon, and the question that now seemed so far away.

That night in the bunkhouse, after the men cleaned themselves in the quarry and ate their dinner at the farmhouse, Dixon wouldn’t let go. “So, Johnny boy, you can’t tell me where you’re from.”

Johnny didn’t answer. Tonight felt good. Mr. Pfieffer let him rub down the horse, he ate ice cream outside on the house lawn and life was as it should be. He had a job.

“Lay off him, will you,” said Joe.

“I ain’t talking to you, old man. I’m talking to my Johnny boy,” said Dixon, a bully with a chip on his shoulder. He sensed a weakness in Johnny and wanted to take advantage, to show who’s boss. Where does a man learn to swim like that? he thought. When did he have the time to do it? Maybe a parent or a coach? That sort of thing takes money and kindness, something that was always out of Dixon’s reach.

Johnny turned more inward. He didn’t like being the center of attention.

“I’ll tell you where you’re from,” continued Dixon, bitterly. He twisted and sat up, square on to Johnny. “You’re one of those rich kids with hands as soft as butter. I bet your folks got you this job through connections. Maybe you belong to those families that own the tobacco company or to some fancy club where they know people that know people that get jobs for dumb bastards like you. You get this job and take it away from slobs like me who need this work to feed their kids back home.”

“Enough,” said Joe.

“Shut up, Dixon,” said another man. “Go to sleep.”

“Yeah,” Dixon continued, “some poor schmuck is lined up at the employment office, can’t get work, and you ride in on a gravy train like you own the place.”

“I didn’t come in on a train,” said Johnny, trying to hold his own.

“Aww, you dumb sonafabitch,” finished Dixon.

Johnny was tired. He worked hard and kept up. He wasn’t rich, he thought. He vaguely remembered home. He remembered plenty of tears. He did remember the stables though, and the fact that he was allowed to take care of the horses. He had even had a dog at home, but he couldn’t quite remember its name right now.

When Dixon finished talking in the bunkhouse, Johnny wanted to be next door with the horse. He liked her and felt comfortable with the animal. He had what they called a knack. When he finished these thoughts, Johnny was really tired and promptly fell asleep. Mr. Pfieffer had kept his promise, and Johnny boy had his own bunk.

“Shi-it”, said Dixon using two syllables, and turned off the light.

In the morning the men woke to a drizzle. The tobacco plants were as firm and crisp as lettuce sold in a fancy grocery store. When the leaves snapped off, the burning juice would spray so that by the end of the day the men were entirely covered with tar. Rainy days were not comfortable.

The men worked quietly, duck-walking up and down, five rows at a time. Dixon was in the lead as usual. To his right, Johnny was keeping pace. Dixon didn’t like that. Johnny-boy should be a few yards behind him, like the rest. He sped up imperceptibly. Johnny kept picking right alongside. Of course, the race was on and the two men sped down their rows, leaves flying, tobacco juice burning, the old white mare almost trotting. The rest of the crew was left behind. They now had to run to keep up.

Mr. Pfieffer watched. When the two men finished their race and emerged from the field with chests heaving, Mr. Pfieffer walked a few hundred feet into their rows and looked about.“You do that again,” he said to Dixon, “you’ll be off the field in a flash.”

He said nothing to Johnny who stood there, pleased with himself that he had easily kept up with Dixon. The other three men emerged from the field and dumped their last armloads into the waiting sled.

“Stupid asshole,” one of them said under his breath as he walked past Dixon. Mr. Pfieffer waited until things calmed down, switched sleds, and drove the tractor towards the kilns.

By ten o’clock in the morning the rain stopped and by noon the sun had almost burned the moisture from the land. The horseflies buzzed and landed on the wet backs of the men and the eyes and ears of the mare. It was back to routine for the crew, except that following the dawn’s race, Johnny worked right beside Dixon. Indeed, he might have even been slightly ahead and, to the consternation and irritation of the more experienced man, Johnny showed him his rear these last few hours. Even more irritating was the occasional squirt of tobacco juice that landed on Dixon’s face when Johnny accidentally broke off a leaf from a higher whorl.

Mr. Pfieffer’s words held back Dixon’s impetus to chase Johnny down and make him pay for what he perceived to be his brazenness. Johnny was happy picking, away from Dixon’s cursing, his face blank like a smiling Buddha.

A horsefly the size of a Hawaiian cockroach landed on the mare’s face, just above the soft, fuzzy nose. The horse shook her head and sent Dixon sprawling into the drying mud, the armload of leaves beneath him. He jumped up and swung at the horse. As usual, he missed. The crew stopped and watched. Mr. Pfieffer saw a commotion in the field but couldn’t quite make it out.

In full fury, Dixon looked about on the ground and found a chunk of two-by-four, picked it up and swung hard, hitting the gray mare across her face. She reared up like a stallion, tipped over the half-loaded sled and spilled the precious tobacco.

Dixon swung again when the mare’s forelegs touched the ground, but in the middle of Dixon’s second swing, Johnny’s hand shot out and grabbed Dixon’s’s wrist. Dixon whirled at Johnny but the pain made him think. Johnny’s grip was powerful.

“No more,” said Johnny. He didn’t let go. The pain made Dixon stand on tiptoe. “No more,” repeated Johnny, and the two-by-four fell out of Dixon’s hand. Still Johnny didn’t let go. He looked Dixon in the eyes and shook his arm violently, the red swollen hand now flapping like a rag. “No more, ever,” said Johnny the last time and let Dixon go.

Mr. Pfieffer made his way quickly through the field towards the gang of men. The kiln had to be filled. He arrived and took in the scene. The pecking order had been reset. He saw the men standing about. Dixon was off to the side now, quiet, nursing his wrist. Johnny, the big, tall one, was gently stroking the horse’s forehead, talking into its ear.

“Salvage what you can, boys, pick up the sled, make sure the horse isn’t cut. Let’s get going,” he said walking away, back to his tractor.

The men picked up the debris and made things right. Without any talk, they bent over and started working. Dixon did what he could. His wrist swelled and he could manage to only take half an armload at a time. He was sorry. He wanted to say something to Johnny, but he didn’t know how. He thought of his family back home, waiting for him and his paycheck. The gang moved along efficiently.

The sun burned down on Johnny as he picked his way towards the end of the row. He could almost see Mr. Pfieffer sitting on the tractor seat waiting with the water. He felt good again. What really felt good to Johnny, however, was the warm breath of the white mare as she breathed on his lower back and the occasional soft rub when her muzzle touched him.

Copyright © 2012 by Mike Florian

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