Bill McLaughlin was born in the later half of the last century. He has worked as a freelance journalist and independent radio producer. After...read more spending more than a decade as an itinerant writer and gardener, living and traveling in a 1973 VW camper bus, he now homesteads in upstate New York where he hauls water, chops wood, and ponders the Rights of Nature, late frosts, and black flies.
...Welcome to Who's a Loser? Okay, contestants, you know the rules. Let's get started. Here are your clues: he's over 30; he's homeless; he has less than $20 in his pocket; he's standing on the side of the road with his thumb out—and it's not for shits and giggles—he really needs that ride; he's recently lost his wife, his house, his job, his car, and his wallet; he has no friends and even fewer prospects. And our final clue: last night he had sex with a man—and he wasn't even drunk! All right, please write your answer on the card provided...La da da dah da, la da dah...Okay everyone, time's up. And the answer is...
Ray was about to defend Mona's honor and begin a lengthy debate with himself when just then a car stopped—a 1963 Rambler Classic in mint condition. It was cream-colored with flared fenders and that old happy face grill and lights. As Ray approached, he read the stickers on the rear bumper: Cat: The Other White Meat. There was also a sticker about musicians doing “it” all night and in the lower left corner of the rear window was the black and white MIA/POW square, sun-bleached and peeling. The same symbol he had seen yesterday on the sax case. It took Ray a few minutes to recognize the driver.
“Hey, thanks for the ride. You know I really enjoyed your playing yesterday.”
“Yeah? Thanks, I appreciate that. Not many folks anymore want to hear that old stuff.“
“Really? And you got that Ben Webster thing going, you know, warm and throaty.”
August laughed at Ray's comment. “Yeah, Ben Webster, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims—man, that's all I ever listened to.”
“But you have your own sound too though, kinda soulful with a touch of Latin.”
“Could be, I'm half Cuban. My father came from the island, used to play all those old records. I can still remember him and my mother dancing in the living room—the parlor we called it back then—they'd move all the furniture. Mother would put on her special long dress, made just for dancing, or at least that's how I remember it. They both had special dancing shoes too. I can't recall every detail of course but it seemed to us kids like a holiday, like Christmas or something when they started that dancing. We'd fall asleep on the sofa and they would keep it up all night. I wish I had them old records now, I don't know what ever became of them.”
“Was your father a musician too?”
“No, he was a lector.”
“A lector. A professional reader.”
“Yeah, in those days, from Miami to Key West, a lot of Cubans worked in small cigar shops. These guys were real craftsmen; they made each cigar by hand. Anyway, they used to have readers, lectors they called them. The lector would read as the men worked. They would read the morning newspaper first, then books, mostly classics. I remember, in the shop where my father worked, there was a massive wooden chair on a platform, maybe a foot off the floor, right smack in front. That's where the lector sat. Next to it was a small wooden square table with shelves where he kept the day's books and always, I remember this real well, always there was a tall glass of water with slices of lime in it. His voice would carry from the front of the shop, clear and true, all the way to the back. The sound of his voice floating over the rustle of tobacco leaves, the curved knives, razor sharp and precise in the workers' hands, slicing through the leaf; the faint thud of the blade finding the wooden bench below; the rich and acrid smell of the tobacco leaves, the wooden furniture, the sweat—no air conditioning back then—and maybe twenty or thirty men sitting at their benches, facing the front of the shop listening to him as they worked, and my father, solemn and dutiful, reading each word as if it mattered.
At the end of the day, the lector would stand outside the shop and the men would drop a few coins into his cigar box as they left. The more they liked what was read that day, the more they gave. In the evening, my father used to spend a lot of time selecting books. I don't remember much else about him, but I remember him and his books. Late at night, I'd get up for a drink and he'd be in his big chair reading. Even the way he held them, he made books seem special, almost magical. He even used to make us smell the pages of his new books. Of course my mother worked too, in a dress factory. I think she might have made even more than him but being a lector was a tradition, a noble profession. He was very proud, my father. Not just anyone could be a lector. Remember, this was back when half the country was illiterate. My grandfather—his father—all the way back were lectors. All except me.”
“What happened? Why aren't there lectors anymore?”
“Ha! Radio first. Who wants to listen to Treasure Island when you can hear a ball game—live—as it happens? It revolutionized everything. Then the small shops started to disappear too: industrialization. The radio replaced my father and then machines replaced the workers. Of course the worst blow was the trade embargo. The whole cigar business became politicized; men like my father became caught between two warring political machines.”
“In a way, you're doing the same thing though, aren't you? I mean instead of reading you're playing. Instead of a cigar box, you have a saxophone case. You're bringing joy to people—it's the same thing.”
August laughed again at Ray's insight. “Yeah, well that may be. That may be.”
“What happened to your father?”
“Oh, he didn't have it bad. I mean, of course he was heartbroken. All he ever wanted to be was a lector; it was all he knew. But still, he was in Miami; he was educated. He found work as a salesman. He was good too. Encyclopedias, pots and pans, he was always coming home with some new gadget to sell. But after being a lector, he only just worked for money, not for the joy of it. He sent as much money as he could back to the relatives.
“Have you ever wanted to go back there?”
“I did, twice.”
“Isn't that illegal?”
“Ha! Fuck 'em! I have a right to see my family, don't I? Of course you can't get a flight from here to there—just sixty miles away. No, I had to go all the way to goddamn Canada, then fly all the goddamn way back! Crazy right? What I don't understand is how can a system that's supposedly good—made up of people who are mostly good—prevent food and medicine from getting to those who need it?—kids especially. And we have these warehouses here just filled to the brim with extra food—we're paying farmers not to grow stuff. Governments are all the same. I don't give a shit what you call it, capitalism, communism, socialism. It's all bullshit. It's just the strong living off the weak. No system is good if it allows bad things to happen to kids just to preserve itself. I know that's kind of a simple way of looking at it but it's true all the same.”
“So what's the answer?”
“I don't know. I was hoping you could tell me.”
In the silence, August reached his hand across the front seat and smiled. “August, August Cotton, musician—and no philosopher. Ha!”
“Ray Waldron. Nice to meet you, August. I guess I should tell you I'm going to Miami.”
“I'm only going as far as Key Largo. I'm gonna spend the day with my daughter and her little boy. If you can get yourself a ride to Homestead, about forty miles from where I'm going, from there you can hop on the Metro bus, that'll take you right downtown Miami for about two bucks. It's about a three hour trip, though. You gotta be anywhere soon?”
“I was trying to get to the bank today, but I'm not going to make it before they close. Maybe I can stay somewhere cheap till tomorrow.”
“Cheap? Near Miami? Ha! Your best bet is to head for the Glades Hostel in Florida City. They'll put you to work, but you'll get a bed and a decent meal. They're good people there; they never turn away a traveler. If you can't make it that far tonight, your best bet is to camp out near the tomato fields and head to Miami in the morning. You have a tent?”
“I wish. I could sleep in my poncho. I guess I'd be warm enough.”
“Heat ain't your problem. It's the bugs.”
“A lot of bugs around there?”
“Ha! You know the first farmers couldn't even keep their livestock outside at night—the damn skeeters would kill 'em. I'm not kidding either. Them little bastards would suck all the blood from a horse, a cow, you name it. The farmers would find their stock lying dead on the ground in the morning—not a drop of blood left in 'em. Bugs? Bugs a'plenty all right! Keepin' warm ain't the problem—your problem will be to keep from bleedin' to death. Ha!—Hey Ray, look on the floor in the back seat there. Last year I picked up a couple of little hippies and one of them left something—I think it's a tent, it's too small to be a sleeping bag. I was hoping to find someone who needed it. I don't know what kind of shape it's in, but you're welcome to it if you want.”
Ray found the tent. It was packed tightly in a small army-green nylon stuff sack. It was backpacker's tent, lightweight and compact. It fit right in his daypack.
“Thanks, August. I don't know what I would have done without you. I can go anywhere now.”
“Don't mention it. I'm glad to get rid of it. I just hope it isn't full of holes!”
“You know, I really appreciate the ride too. I was getting kind of discouraged out there. I'd been hoisting my thumb since early this morning. There's not many friendly people around.”
August nodded in agreement. He always picked up hitchhikers—unless they looked drunk or stoned. He was an idealist. He wanted the people in the world to take care of each other. Most of all he wanted happiness, not just for himself, but for everyone. It was the music now, the music was the thing he could give away—absolutely free for anyone who wanted it. That was his way. And rides, he couldn't pass on a chance to help someone. His daughter would scold him if she knew. So he resolved, even though he really liked Ray and would like to tell her about their conversation, he wouldn't mention him to her. 'At your age? Pickin' up strangers? Are y'all crazy or somethin', Papa? Lord, I swear, the older you get the sillier you get!' No, she wouldn't understand.
“Sounds like Key West all right. Anyway, if things get any worse around here, I'm thinking about moving to Cuba. Only thing is I'll lose my veteran benefits.”
“What's wrong with Key West? Seems like paradise to me, I mean for an artist or a musician.”
“Used to be a busker's town. It' all changed now. You can't fart on Duvall without a permit. Used to be musicians—good musicians too—we'd have all-night jams, right there on the street, and big crowds, people who just came for the music. Now its all T-shirt shops and $5-a-scoop ice cream. If you don't light your cigars with dollar bills, you can't come to Key West—it don't exist for you.”
August looked over the steering wheel as if for some fact he might have omitted. After a moment he continued.
“It's happening all over. They ruined the French Quarter too. New York's Fulton Street, Baltimore, Philly, you name it. A lot of good musicians and artists can't afford to live now. They won't be happy till we're all flippin' burgers.”
“I saw lots of performers—too many maybe—down at the square last night.”
“Oh sure, if you got the money you can buy a license. Then you get to crowd into Mallory Square with about a hundred others and try to get your living in an hour while the sun's settin.' What kind of shit is that? A license to make music? No thanks! I'll take my chances on the street. In Cuba there's music everywhere. Not much money, but lots of music. You know the more I think about it...”
August examined Ray from behind his wire-rimmed sunglasses, exposing large brown irises floating in a milky-white sea.
“There's a little place up ahead I like to stop. Best fruit shakes in the state. Grow all their own stuff. What do you say? My treat.”
The two men were quiet for the next few miles as the car passed over a series of slender bridges skirting deep blue bays and inlets. The roadway occasionally drifted toward the horizon, brushing against the tropical Atlantic then suddenly receding behind thick mangrove jungles. While Ray and August were speeding up the coast, those mangroves were determinedly moving outward, thrusting roots deep into a hostile medium, plunging down, taking hold, anchoring the rootless seedling. In its struggle for survival the mangrove begins to gather soil around itself, creating a tiny island. Its unrelenting effort will eventually change the contour of an entire coastline. Restless bits of leaf and stem expanding a continent, reducing the idea of permanence to an illusion created by time and falsely witnessed by men. At a roadside picnic table they sipped their shakes under the shade of two royal palms.
“I saw your POW stickers; were you in the service, August?”
“The forgotten war, huh?”
“My father too. He wasn't enlisted or anything. He was a photographer for the AP—the Associated Press.”
August looked at Ray but didn't ask. Ray continued with his father's story.
“That was back when they let the media get close to the front. Not like today where all the reporters sit around in briefing rooms collecting handouts like bible lessons. Back then the reporters and photographers were able to verify what the military claimed. Of course, it was risky. My father didn't make it back—except in a box.”
“I'm sorry, Ray.”
“It's okay. I mean I never knew him. I have—I had—a scrapbook with all his war photos and articles. I still have his obituary.”
Ray opened his pack and thumbed the pages of Walden till he found it. He passed the folded slip of yellowed newsprint to August.
“My mother took it pretty bad. Cracked up. They put her in a home.”
“Foster parents. A crazy old couple who should have never even had kids. Maybe biology knows best. My foster dad died a while back. My foster mother just remarried. I don't see them much anymore. I left home at seventeen. I think we all just mutually agreed to avoid each other. They found out pretty quickly that an adopted kid wasn't really what they wanted. I think they were too old, too set in their ways. Hell, they were like forty when I came along. We talk at Christmas, that's about it. I haven't met her new husband, probably won't. My real mother died years ago. It's one thing to be an orphan, it's another to... Anyway, she died a long time ago. Maybe that's why I've never felt totally connected to anything or anybody. I've always felt like everything was just temporary, like nothing was ever gonna last, no matter what. God, August, I just walked away from it all: a job—a wife—a career. But what good is all that if you're not really happy? And I don't mean if you're just not miserable. I mean happy—really happy, really alive. Maybe that's why I'm doing this now, you know, wandering, being a vagabond. I've never felt more alive. There's no safety net, no routine to fill in the empty spaces. I don't know, I'm no shrink. It's strange though, isn't it? I mean, now that I have nothing, I feel like I have more—even without my wallet. I don't get it.”
“Maybe this is just something you've got to do now, Ray. Maybe later, after you've been on the road a while, you'll feel differently.”
“Maybe. Because it's not one hundred percent. Sometimes I look at myself through the eyes of society, through the eyes of my ex-wife, my boss. I see them sneering and laughing at me and the weird thing is—I wind up agreeing with them! That's when I start feeling like a loser, like a bum. Big time like a bum. I don't get it.”
“What happened to your wallet?”
“Oh, I didn't tell you. It got lifted while I was in Sloppy Joe's.”
“What the hell were you doing in Sloppy Joe's? That joint's a rip-off! It's a fake too. Hemingway never set foot in the place. The real Sloppy Joe's, the one he drank at, is on Greene Street. Different name of course.”
“Thank you, August. But you're twenty-four hours too late with that information. I was planning to take the bus to Miami this morning but I was about nine dollars short of a ticket. So I figured I'd try hitchhiking. I don't think I've done this since I was a teenager.”
“That's something, Ray. He sounds like a great guy. Talented too.”
“Thanks, August. Hey, you never told me what it was you did in the war. Did you play?”
“Oh yeah. We had a quintet. Played all kinds of stuff. It was a cushy gig really. Not like those guys on the line, getting blown to bits. But boy, was it ever good to see them smiling when we played familiar stuff. Oh you know, we played Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller. Hell, we even played Elvis back then. You know, looking back I don't think it mattered much. I think the important thing was that someone cared about them. That we were there was enough. You should've seen our bass player, Bobby White. He would dress up like Marilyn Monroe—you should have seen him—smiling— winking—with a big blond wig and a pair of falsies—and playing the hell outta that bass! Man, did those G.I.s go crazy for that!”
But despite the laughing, a distant aching underlined his voice, hinted, in sharp contrast at something untold, something buried for so long that it nearly ceased to exist.
A succession of short rides finally brought Ray just south of Homestead and the outskirts of the Everglades. It would be another ten miles to the hostel but he decided not to hitchhike in the approaching darkness. Ray found a small café and had a western omelet for supper and key lime pie for dessert. When he finished, he walked a back road toward some fields where he hoped he would find a spot for his tent, well concealed behind some trees and brush. He had lingered over his coffee until the sun began its descent. Immense fields stretched west from the highway, spreading into flat, uninterrupted expanses of green. On this back road, far from gaudy buildings and loud tourists, the sky blazed purple and orange and crimson against a cerulean backdrop. Great swirls of color spiraled overhead, dwarfing the land and his cramped notions of scenery. Here was the sunset he had hoped to find in Key West. The beauty, witnessed in solitude and combined with his new freedom and its uncertainties, intoxicated him, filled him with a sudden reverence. Yes, there was fear—and anticipation, but also excitement. He did not know where he would sleep or if he would find a safe spot. He did not know if he would be mugged, or murdered alone in the night, far from any help. The number of things he didn't know greatly outnumbered the things he did know. Unexplainably, some universal knowledge interceded, assured him, let him know that the path he was on was a true one. The things he needed had come to him through kindness; the things he thought he needed, but didn't, had left him. But he was all right. Here he was now, he thought, in the middle of nowhere—broke and alone, yet... He knew he would find a safe place to sleep, that the tent would work, the bus would come, and he would get his money, he would... he would!
As darkness descended, Ray noticed a faint firelight in the distance. He walked toward it, drawn to the suggestion of humanity in the desolate fields. As he came closer he saw that it was a group of people, sitting in a circle around a campfire. Shadowy faces stared up at him, surprised and defensive. Finally, a friendly gesture; a voice called to him, “Hola amigo. Come, have a seat. There's room here,” she said, pointing to the ground beside her. “You're just gonna feed the mosquitoes standing over there.”
She was young, in her mid-twenties. Her accent was Spanish, her English articulate. She wore faded overalls and an Army-green T-shirt underneath. Her boots were caked with the dull brown of Everglades mud. Buttons on her overall straps shouted “Che!” and “Food Not Bombs.” There were more than a dozen people sitting in the dirt around the fire. They introduced themselves. Spanish names, some French, few English. Her name was Dolores. There were other women—and kids too. One little girl caught Ray's eye as he took his seat in the circle. She was dancing around the perimeter of the fire from person to person. But Ray noticed something was wrong. It was hard to see in the dim light but there was something about her eyes, the shape of her skull. She was only about six-years-old. She wore a sky blue summer dress and over her shoulders hung a loosely knit white sweater with pearly buttons. On her feet she wore pink plastic sandal shoes with faded cartoon characters behind the toes. She seemed so fragile, too delicate for these fields, as if she were made of paper maché or smoke merely; susceptible to everything.
Yet she was joyous. And her joy infected everyone. She went round the circle kissing and hugging them all, bursting with giggles and laughs. Her mother, laughing with her, clapped her hands and sang over and over, “Marisol, my pretty Marisol.” The more she sang, the faster the little girl would go. As she went around the circle, the men would grab her, kiss her loudly on the back of her neck and pretend that they were never going to let her go. Marisol would squeal and cry to her mother for help, then the men would release her and she, laughing and singing, would fall into the arms of the next person.
“That's our Marisol,” said Dolores. “She's something, no?”
Ray smiled, “She's so full of life.”
“She has a strange effect on us, doesn't she? To see someone, a child, with no inhibitions, not afraid to love.”
He could see Dolores smiling too. “Yes,” he added, “I know what you mean. It makes me happy—and a little ashamed at the same time.”
“Yes, you're right. We should all be ashamed, a little.”
“What's everyone doing here? I'm surprised to find all these people in the middle of nowhere—at night.”
“These men and women are field workers. We just had a meeting. They're trying to get better wages, safer conditions. You're not the only one who was surprised. We don't get many visitors out here—just company spies.”
Dolores looked at Ray for his reply. She hoped that if she looked closely enough she could tell if he was lying. Ray sensed that she was testing him and was careful with his answer, feeling strangely guilty.
“I'm hitchhiking to Miami. I can't afford to stay overnight in the city so I thought I would camp out here tonight. Someone told me I could catch a cheap bus in Homestead.”
She believed him and the relief surfaced on her face, sounded sweet in her voice. “Yes, you're not far from the bus stop—about a mile or so. You can sleep anywhere out here, no one will bother you. Just make sure you leave early, before the foremen come out. And don't sleep under the irrigation machines,” she said smiling again. “You'll either get squished or drowned!”
“And how about you? Do you work in the fields too?”
“No, not anymore. My parents did, though. I grew up in the fields. I was lucky. I got away, went to college on a scholarship. I'm an organizer now. I live in Immokolee. That's a few hours north of here. We're trying to get better wages and more safety equipment for the campesinos; fresh water during the day for drinking, toilets, masks, gloves, you know, as if they were human beings and not just machines.”
Ray looked up and saw Marisol standing silent in front of him, her hands folded behind her. Her dark hair was pulled back and braided nearly to her waist. In her hair above her forehead she wore brightly colored barrettes: little fish and turtles and bows. She looked at her feet, shuffled them, and then looked at Ray. She didn't recognize him. Ray could feel everyone's eyes upon him. He could see plainly now the disfiguration, the crooked eyes, the misshapen skull. Then suddenly, she smiled at him. He smiled back and she leapt into his arms with a squeal and he squeezed her like he had never held anyone before. And the unbounded love of this joyous spirit transcended her wounded body, infused him, and before he had had enough she was gone and back into the arms of the next person.
Just then one of the workers moved closer to the fire and, throwing a dry palmetto trunk into the flames, cleared his throat and looked intently out at the faces in the circle. Marisol's mother gathered the little girl into her arms and kissed her quiet. Whispering, Dolores turned to Ray and told him that this was Norberto and he was about to tell a story.
Norberto was a handsome, lean man in his late thirties. Squatting close to the fire, his black eyes focused on Marisol and her young mother. His voice was deep and steady; the words, spoken slowly and carefully, sounded to Ray like music. The firelight played on the angles of his strong jaw and danced in his tufts of tightly woven dark hair. At times, the light made him look like a strange creature, at other times, like an old man. But his voice never wavered, never rushed. It soothed them like a strong hand, like the consolation of a trusted friend in a time of crisis.
No one spoke as he told the story. Ray watched their faces: delight and fear; relief and joy. In a few minutes it was over.
“They enjoyed it?,” Ray asked Dolores, confident of the answer.
“Yes, it is always good when he tells that story.”
“He's told it before?”
“Yes, many times.”
Ray's surprise was obvious. “Why does he keep telling the same story?”
“Because the monsters keep coming back.”
“I don't understand.”
Dolores ran her fingers backward through her short black hair then folded her hands together as if she were praying.
“Norberto's story goes like this: There is a small village in Africa. The people there are peaceful farmers. Their ancestors had lived in the same village for many generations. Fruit grows on the trees, the land is good for cultivation and there are plentiful springs of cool, clear water and shade from the harsh sun. There is only one mean thing. Surrounding the village are giant snakes that live in the ground. At night, the snakes come out of their nests and sneak into the village looking for food. The snakes will eat a pig or a dog. But sometimes the snakes will eat a child. They sneak into the villagers' huts and swallow children and babies right in their beds. There is no use moving; in every village it is the same. So after many years of living in terror, the villagers developed a special way of hunting the snakes. But it demands courage and skill, it demands heroes. At the hour when the day of the night begins, the hunting party will sneak up on a snake hole. One of the village boys will volunteer to be lowered into the pit feet first by a rope tied around his chest, under his arms. The men dangle him there until the snake begins to eat him.”
“No, the incredible part is that they let the boy get eaten to his waist, then the hunters suddenly pull up on the rope bringing the boy and snake out of the pit. They chop the snake in half and the boy is released unharmed. Back in the village, the boy is honored; there is music and dancing till the morning. The snake is delicious and everyone savors eating the flesh of their enemy. The boy becomes a hero, his courage celebrated, and the village rejoices.”
“I don't get it. Why do these workers like that story so much?”
“It's simple. They want monsters they can see, monsters they can vanquish and consume. They want a monster whose head they can chop off.”
“Because their monster, the monster that sneaks inside of them and eats their lungs, that empties their women; the monster that lays its eggs inside their chests and steals their children—no one can see it, no one can get a solid grip on it. Their monsters have names they can't pronounce; chemicals they cannot see, but every evening they can taste it in the backs of their throats, smell it on their clothes, and feel it burn in their nostrils. Yes, it is better to have monsters you can see and fight—and kill; and tell the tales of bravery around the fire at night. Even defeat creates heroes. But in their frustration, these workers tell the tales of other monsters, other victories in lands far away. And that's why Norberto's story never gets old.”
Ray was silent. Then, in a flat and solemn voice, he asked, “And Marisol?”
“Yes, there are many like her. Too many. And some much worse. Many have deformities: missing fingers, thumbs. Some are nearly blind. Many have encephalitis and cholera. Even leprosy, Ray. And the boys, they have trouble with their testes, they don't drop: sterile. No one has the money to test the girls. Only time will tell.”
“But why? Why don't the growers stop using the chemicals?”
“They claim there's no scientific proof, that it's all just conjecture on our part. Look, it's business as usual: profits before people. And farm workers aren't even considered people in this country.”
“But haven't there been any studies, you know, tracking the workers and their illnesses?”
“The people in these fields move north during the summer. They're exposed to certain chemicals here, then others there. They're constantly moving, changing locations. There's no system of tracking them. There's no way to account for the multiple exposures—the combined effects of all those toxins. These workers have no health care. Yeah, there are clinics that treat emergencies and the most obvious illnesses, but that's about it. That's why organizing is so important. We need a worker registry—and we need to know what the growers are using—they won't tell us—-and the government backs them—they don't have to disclose anything. And don't forget Ray, most of the workers are considered “illegal.” What a joke! They're only “illegal” when the work is done and the crops are finished and the bosses have made their money. Then these workers have to hide like outlaws. You tell me—who are the criminals here?”
“So why don't the workers form unions, demand better wages and protection? It makes so much sense.”
“Common sense has nothing to do with it. It's illegal for farm workers to organize here.”
Ray sat quietly for a moment, considering the smoky faces around the fire. Some of them were listening to the conversation. Marisol was getting tired and was lying across her mother's lap, looking up at the sky and the bright crescent rising in the west.
“How much do they make working here. Is it enough?”
“In these fields—when they're picking—about forty cents for a thirty-two pound bucket of tomatoes. To make fifty dollars a day they have to haul about two tons of tomatoes. The season only lasts a few months, then they have to move on. There's no chance—no time for getting job training, the kids can't finish school. It takes them two years to finish one grade—but most of them just drop out after a while. If a family tries to save their money and stay on, they're arrested and deported.”
“Not only that, they're getting the same pay they were thirty years ago. They can't organize; they don't get overtime pay for overtime work, no health care, no vacation, no pension, no savings plan, no sick days. That's insane!”
Ray stared at the firelight. The glowing embers radiated like a miniature city, pulsing to a silent rhythm. He tried to reconcile this harsh reality with the cheery fire, the warm tropical night, the kindness that had been shown to a stranger. He traced a stick in the thin soil between his feet as he looked closely at the faces in the circle.
“Where are your parents? Do they still work in the fields?”
“No, they're dead.”
“I'm sorry.” And with a voice tinged with surprise, he asked, “How old are you?”
“Were your parents old when they...”
“Farm workers don't live very long. They were both in their late 50s. It's not unusual. Late 50s, early sixties, that's all they get.”
"I'm sorry, I didn't know.”
She looked at him and disappointment fell from her eyes and for the second time that night he was ashamed, a little.
“Are you sure, Ray? Are you sure you didn't know? Somewhere—think—in the back of your mind, haven't you heard all this before?”
Her voice was cracking and her eyes were moist. There was an impatience in her speech now.
“I think you have, but like everyone else you've made a choice to forget it. Everyone does. If they didn't we wouldn't be living like this—we wouldn't be dying like this.”
After a cold, brief silence she turned to him.
“You can put your tent up over there by that line of shacks. You won't be bothered, not by us anyway. Did you have something to eat tonight?”
His voice failed him and he felt unsure of his welcome. The word “us” had separated them. She had drawn a line between their realities. Yet her offer of food reminded him that the line was not a wall but simply a division, real and important, but not a wall. It could be crossed; with understanding, it could be erased. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks. I ate before.”
As he stood, he smiled and waved good-bye to everyone. He saw Marisol sleeping sweetly in the arms of her mother. For the first time he noticed the woman's face. It was thin and gaunt, tired and full of stress. Only the sleeping child seemed able to comfort her. Before leaving he knelt close to Dolores and pressed his hand gently against her back.
“I'm sorry, Dolores.”
“Hey Ray, look, I'm sorry too, I just get...”
“It's all right.”
“Have a good sleep. Suarte amigo. Good luck in Miami tomorrow.”
“Thanks. I won't forget this—any of it. I promise.”
He walked slowly toward the black outline of jumbled shacks a few hundred yards away. He found a grassy patch, smooth and level. The moonlight was sufficient to assemble the tent. He crawled inside and was glad there were no big holes. The roof of the tent was made of netting and when he laid down he watched the stars and tried to find Orion's belt and the Milky Way. The night air was cool; he covered himself with his poncho and wrapped his sneakers in his shirt for a pillow. He watched as the moonlight dappled the sides of his tent.
And that night two men laid down to sleep. One man, in clean sheets and familiar surroundings, lay in the dark thinking again about missing comrades, thunder and sunbursts, mangled instruments and players. He silently cursed his inability to talk about it. Even after all these years, he could not bring himself to admit that what he had seen was real. And he could not forgive himself for getting out alive.
The other man closed his eyes and listened to the sound of crickets and cicadas, felt the cool earth beneath him. He had no time for the past. He was haunted by the present, by a thin troubled voice that tried too hard to sound gay; by a little song that was made for happiness but reaped only sadness. And before the two men slept they thought briefly of each other, sadly realizing that they would never meet again. And what they dreamed was never better or never worse than what they lived.
Ray awoke at first light. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept all night outside. His back was stiff and he felt dirty. He wanted a hot shower and a cup of coffee. He unzipped the tent and crawled out into the day, already warm, and into the middle of an endless row of tomato seedlings, plastic row covers—and alarmingly close—an enormous, spindly irrigation machine on wheels, wide as a football field and spitting out a fine mist of water and chemicals as it slowly rolled toward him.
In the distance he could see lines of workers, stooped over plants. They were dressed in bright colors; some wrapped their heads in cloth, wound round like turbans. Others wore straw hats, neckerchiefs, and bandannas. Yet others were bareheaded and their black skin gleamed in the bright morning air. The sun had already pried itself from the edge of the world and was bearing down upon these women and men and children.
Dolores was right, he thought. He couldn't see one worker with a mask or gloves. There was a porta-Johnny on the back of a truck in the distance but it was too far from the workers to be useful. Wooden boxes and baskets were piled high at intervals between the rows, suggesting the amount of work to be done. Towering over all of the workers were men, white and brown, sitting in air-conditioned cabs high atop huge combines and tractors.
Ray rolled up his tent and tied it to the bottom of his pack with some twine he had found. He walked across the fields in the direction of the highway. He passed the still smoldering fire pit. He kicked at the remaining coals and remembered his imagined city, its gray embers competing now with the daylight, vainly keeping the monsters at bay.
Back on the highway, walking north to where he could catch the Miami bus, he began thinking about the idea of work. He compared the work day of these immigrants to the typical lazy, middle-class office worker. What did they do all day? Anyone who's ever worked in an office knows the routine and has surely wondered: 'How does anything ever get done in the world?'
Monday: nothing happens. Much time is used for telling weekend stories. Some of the fascinating subjects include movies seen, game scores, in-law horror tales, and romantic highlights (note: in case of marriage in excess of one year, food, furniture, and baby highlights may be substituted). The same stories must now be typed and emailed. Monday also includes the big two-hour “catch-up” lunch with friends. The most ambitious compile a “to-do” list for the remainder of the week, assuaging any guilt that may inadvertently surface toward the end of the day.
Tuesday: same as Monday.
Wednesday: the most pressing business is attended to, often merely postponing till the following week the most serious and energy-draining meetings, conferences, or deadlines. This massive amount of work is offset by hours of TV talk and celebrity news. Wednesday is also a good day for a few cocktails after work to help bridge that unbearable gap between weekends.
Thursday: phone calls are returned, often at lunch time, to avoid reaching the other party, thereby reducing the risk of tying up the afternoon with any obligations. Thursday is also marked by a flurry of phone calls and emails in preparation for the impending weekend, i.e. reservations, invitations, etc.
Friday: morning is the perfect time to compare notes on the upcoming weekend and make sure you won't be running into any of these people while you're not actually getting paid to be in the same room with them. If you're back by four o'clock from the big pre-weekend lunch, that's the time to sit back and start calling some old friends or co-workers you haven't spoken with for a while. And of course, you just might uncover a job lead.
Saturday and Sunday: included here because of the amount of time spent whining about the demands of work.
Ray walked north on Highway One hypnotized by the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other. His mind wandered back to his last day at the paper.
“Waldron! Waldron—get in here!”
Ray slowly made his way to the fishbowl, his editor's cramped office that overlooked the newsroom. Moe Grabowski, his boss and city desk editor, was a lumpy, bug-eyed, balding, booze-bloated pile of late middle-aged corporate servility. He constantly fidgeted with a stubby pencil and scratched his prickly-pear whiskers with the back of his hand between barks.
“Ray, where the hell's that story on the senator's daughter?”
“I don't have anything yet. No one's talking. The cops, the hospital, they're all playing dumb.”
“Let me get this straight, Ray. Senator Tortelini's 17-year-old underage daughter drinks herself into a stupor, endangers the lives of three of her friends and then kills herself trying to drive her car up a tree —and you've got nothing?”
“I'm working on it. I may have a friend of the girl.”
“What about the family?”
“Goddamn right the family. That fuckin' sleaze bag calls me up looking for publicity every time he helps a goddamn old lady across the street. Now suddenly he's shy? That's bullshit, Ray.”
“I want the family goddamnit! Who was this girl? And I don't want her goddamn first grade report card or whether or not she was on the fuckin' yearbook staff!”
“I called but they're all very insular. It just happened last night. They're still in shock.”
“Insular! I don't give a shit if they're frozen in fuckin' Arctic pack ice! Talk to them Ray! Talk to them!”
Back in his cubicle, Ray finally succeeded in reaching a friend of the Senator's daughter on the phone.
“Hi Meagan, this is Ray Waldron at the Ledger. I'm really sorry to hear about your friend Diana. I heard you wanted to talk to us about her.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I just don't want you to say awful things about her. She was an awesome person. Everyone loved her. I mean really loved her”
“We've learned that she was...well, that she had had a few drinks. You were with her last night?”
“Yeah, we went to the city. Her father had just given her that car for her birthday. Listen, I'm telling you this but you can't use it okay? I mean, I just want you to know that Diana wasn't like a lush or something. We were just celebrating, that's all. You can't use this or my name either, okay?”
“What time was it when she left you?”
“I'm not sure; after one I guess.”
“Did you notice whether she was all right when she dropped you off?”
“I told her not to drive home. I told her to stay at my house. My parents love her. She's stayed over lots of times.”
“So what happened?
“She just laughed and said she couldn't get a ticket in this state if she robbed a bank. You know, 'cause of her father. She made me laugh—I was pretty high myself—and that was it. She was gone.”
“How far is it from....”
“Listen I...I gotta go. I can't talk about this anymore, it's too sad. She was a good person, a really good person. And remember, you promised.”
Ray dialed the Senator's home number again and was surprised when someone, a woman, answered.
“Hello, this is Ray Waldron from the Ledger...”
“Who? I'm sorry, I don't understand.”
“I'm from the Ledger and I'm covering the accident. I'd just like to say that I'm very...”
“You bastard! You son of a bitch! My baby's dead and you... Who's that? What's going on Carol? ”
“Who is this!”
“Hello, Senator? This is Ray Waldron from the Ledger and I just wanted to...”
“You filthy son of a bitch! Leave us alone, do you hear me! Leave us alone!”
Ray knew enough not to take the anger personally; he had heard it too often. Rather, it was directed at them all—particularly at the rag for which he worked. This was the worst part of the job: calling on the dead. He could still hear the corporate rationalization: 'we're going to write about them anyway, we're just giving the family a chance to say a few words about the victim.' Like it was some magnanimous gesture instead of shameless, despicable capitalism. He thought about how the paper had once been something he was proud of. But a new corporate owner and the ensuing budget and personnel cuts quickly sent the entire enterprise rocketing toward mediocrity. There were now more computer people on staff than journalists, more sports reporters than news reporters. No one had time to do any real investigative work. “We're just here to fill the space between the ads,” Moe had told him. At least, he thought, Moe was honest. But they had missed too many good stories. The year before, Ray had begun a conversation with an informer—a whistle blower—from one of the state's largest pharmaceutical companies. Moe killed the story before Ray even had a chance to flesh it out. The company was a big employer—and a big advertiser. Moe had called Ray into the fishbowl to give him the skinny: the paper's bean counters weren't willing to pay for the lawsuit that would have surely arose. “The financial guys'll cut my balls off,” Moe told him. Ray pleaded the case for weeks, the informer sacrificed his job and even the safety of his family. Finally, a carton of documents arrived in the mail followed by an urgent phone call.
“It's all here, Moe. He's insisting we publish it now. He's gotten everything I asked for. We've got them dead to rights. He wants us to publish. What should I tell him?”
“Tell him to light himself on fire, then we'll cover him.”
A big paper across the Hudson eventually published the story. The FBI and the SEC were brought in and a few corporate execs even went to jail, nearly. They could have had it, Ray could have had it. But instead what he had were local murders and arsons, corporate propaganda and rivers of ink for politicians of the right party. And occasionally, if the victims were important enough or tragic enough, he got to call a grieving mother in the middle of the night and ask, “So, what was your daughter like?”
But despite the superficial coverage and the paper's enthusiasm for all things yellow, circulation increased. The graphics were better, there were more pictures, more Mother's Day crafts, more gardening tips, and more 'news you can use.' But for every article on how to cure your roses of powdery mildew, critical stories were pushed to the back till they eventually either shrank so small as to be useless or wound up on the pressroom floor. “Give them what they think they want,” was Moe's mantra. Did the Mets win last night? What month should I feed my lawn? How about a good barbecue recipe—the Fourth is right around the corner! What's Oprah reading this week? Honey, have you seen the coupon section?
Ray found the bus stop at the edge of town. He waited about a half hour and then hopped on the Miami bus. The driver said it would take about two hours and he had to transfer twice to get downtown. He sat in the back and watched as Route One filled with junk food joints, Blockbuster videos, Rite-Aids, Eckerds (always across from each other), Home Depots, and Wal-Marts. Every ten or fifteen miles the chain stores would repeat themselves. Wearied by the monotony, Ray closed his eyes and continued chasing the Senator's daughter.
Six hours later that same day he was back in Moe's office.
“Then go with what you've got, Ray.”
“I don't have anything.”
“Yeah you do, you've got the friend.”
“She said we couldn't use it.”
“You talk to her?”
“Yeah, for almost an hour. No good. She won't budge. She's no dope. She knows how bad it looks.”
“Do you believe her—about the drinking?”
“Yeah, of course. The kid's all tore up.”
“Then let's go with it.”
“—Not under my byline.”
“Fine. Send it over to me. I'll clean it up. How much do you have?”
“I don't know. About twenty inches, fifteen good.”
“Did you find any art?”
“Yeah, we had a file photo of her at the state science fair. She won an award for something a couple of years ago.”
“Good. Send it down—and I need a headline.”
Ray sat in front of his terminal thinking about the thousands of stories he had sent to Moe's queue. But this story seemed to encompass every pernicious thing he had ever submitted. He typed the headline:
Moe will shit himself when he sees that, he thought. He tapped the key and sent the story with the headline. He pulled up the photo. He stared at the girl's smiling face, her slender arms holding the ribbon. Diana was only fifteen then. Braces. The small breasts. Skinny legs. A pimply-faced boy was standing next to her. He cropped it close, cut the award and the kid; zoomed in on her smile. He wrote the cutline:
Better Days for Dead Girl
He tried again, cutting and pasting:
What Are You Waiting For?
Ray could do nothing but stare at the screen as his mind raced in search of a rationalization. Who cares? Who cares if a senator's daughter gets drunk and kills herself? In the back of tomorrow's paper will be the death and suffering of a million refugees in Afghanistan; the walking dead of Africa—40 million AIDS victims without access to medicine; 800 million people starving to death in India; entire populations being poisoned by greedy corporations; tens of thousands of campesinos in Colombia dying at the hands of paramilitaries armed with automatic weapons supplied by US taxpayers; Palestinians fighting Israeli gunships with fistfuls of rocks. All of them getting less coverage—or interest—than Diana Tortelini's Last Joyride. If Diana had gone to Africa to save lives instead of bingeing with her friends they would have required nothing of her. Moe wouldn't have given her an inch on 14B. Yet a mistake—a tragic, foolish, youthful mistake, and for that the inkwells run dry and the forests fall. Give the people what they think they want.
Ray never went back. For six months he collected unemployment, smoked too much, drank too often, and watched the bills pile up. He passively witnessed his life disintegrate. All the tragedies he had imagined that might befall him never appeared. There was no emotional earthquake; no cancer, no breakdown, no horrific accident. There was none of that. Just a silent nod to his conscience, like a liquid overflowing its container; one solitary, gleaming, restless, determined droplet had inched itself over the edge and declared: Enough!
The bus threaded its way through downtown Miami. On the street, Ray winced at the brilliant glass and steel high-rises, felt the oppressive sun on his neck and began his search for the bank. The building wasn't hard to find. Ray had seen the name on ballparks, concert fields, and football stadiums. Its logo was more recognizable than the plants that adorned the building's lobby. He took a seat in the corner. He looked down at his feet; his sneakers were muddy, his jeans were badly stained from life on the road. He felt his face and the roughness of his whiskers. In the beginning he had been so thoughtful about shaving. Now it seemed such a waste of time. He casually walked over to a large glass partition to glimpse his reflection. Six months ago the image he saw there would have shocked him. Now it simply amused him. He resolved to buy a sample stick of deodorant for his next close encounter with civilization. He was certain he offended. But now, the gaudy perfumes, after shaves, and poly vinyl chloride fumes of this phony environment offended him. At least, he thought, he smelled like a real human being. No additives, no preservatives.
He was summoned to the rectangular cubicle of a young woman who was neatly dressed and too polite. He was thoroughly questioned for twenty minutes, signed a few forms, and (reluctantly, it seemed) given his new card. At the cash machine in the lobby he withdrew one hundred dollars in twenties. He carefully placed his wallet containing the card in his back pocket and told himself that he could never afford to be so careless again. At the bus terminal he learned that the Ninety-Nine Days for Ninety-Nine Dollars offer had expired.
“Where to?,” the agent asked in a thick Spanish accent.
Until that moment he hadn't really thought about it; didn't realize that he would have to make a decision so quickly. Then, suddenly: West! He wanted to go west. West to the mountains covered in snow. West to the ghosts of grizzly gold miners and dusty cowboys. To the west of Zane Grey and Jack London, Butch and Sundance. He wanted to see canyons and deserts, cactus fields and wild horses; west to the glow of red rock at sunset and the cold blue-green of pinon pines grasping at crumbly edges high above some bone-filled gulch. Yes, even back at the kitchen table he had wanted to go west, wanted it without saying it or thinking it.
His mouth opened but nothing came out. “West” was not exactly a destination. The woman's patience was expiring. She raised her eyes over his head to call the next person in line when he blurted out: “Utah. I want to go to Utah!”
“Where in Utah?”
“I don't know.”
Saying the words released a torrent of emotions. He was suddenly elated that he could even go to Utah. Imagine, just say it and go! No plan, no destination—no commitments, no deadlines. Just go. This simple act was intoxicating him. But that old fear of the unknown shivered briefly through him and he strained once again at his leash. It made his palms sticky and he breathed now in short, shallow gasps.
“How about Salt Lake City?” she asked, hoping to move him along.
“Yeah, I guess so. Is it nice there?”
The woman, warming slightly, permitted a small smile to escape her regulation deadpan face.
“I don't know, sir. I've never been.”
“Yeah, that's fine. Salt Lake City.”
A machine rumbled on the edge of the counter and spat out some papers.
“That will be $166.”
Ray passed his card under the window.
“Are you going to have that ninety-nine dollar special again?”
“Gate 113 at 6:35. Be there an hour early.”
Outside the terminal he saw a man and a small child huddled under the arch in the doorway. The man was sitting on the ground reading a newspaper, his back resting against the wall. The boy, only five or six years old, was playing with a small red sports car, rolling it on the rough concrete. His face was smudgy and his clothes were shiny and frayed. Behind them in the corner was a large, bulging backpack. The man was friendly and Ray sensed that he wanted to talk. Ray's shabby appearance might have frightened timid bank clerks but it invited familiarity among street people. From a nearby silvery lunch wagon Ray bought a coffee for each of them and an apple juice for the child.
“Me and the boy here been on the road since summer. It's a bitch trying to find work with a kid. No one wants the trouble. I've been looking for a caretaker gig, you know, get a little place to stay—the boy can have his own bed and I could cook some decent food instead of the crap we've been eating on the road. That shit is killing us.”
“Where do you two sleep at night?”
The man pointed to the backpack.
“Sleeping bag. Try to find a spot where no one will bother us. It's a tight fit. We've only got one bag.”
Ray imagined them sleeping under some bushes on the side of a busy highway, diesel fumes and headlights polluting every dream, routing out every chance of a soft morning. He wondered what this kid's idea of life would be when he grew up. How would he remember this experience—something fun like an adventure? Or could he—even at this age—see it for what it was, see the hopelessness in his father's face, hear it in the hollow of his voice? Would he be angry; bitter at the world that wouldn't give his father a job? And how about the father? A man who wants to work but is denied the opportunity can turn on the world, even on those he loves.
“We're headin' down to the 'Glades. Hope to get some work planting and picking. I gotta make enough to get us up north for apple season. Then maybe I can get something steady. The boy'll be needing schooling soon.”
“Can't he stay with somebody… while you look for work?”
The man looked disgustedly at Ray.
“She's a whore. He's not going there. I'll rob a fucking bank before I send him back there.”
Ray looked over at the boy. He seemed to be ignoring the conversation except that Ray had noticed every time the man said “boy” he looked up at his father. At the mention of his mother, he started making vrrroooming noises with his car, zooming it back and forth as far as his little arm could propel it. As he left, Ray shook hands with the man, carefully pressing a twenty into his palm.
“Take it. I got a little extra right now.”
The man looked hurt, as if a confidence had been betrayed.
“I don't take no charity.”
“It's not charity, it's kindness. There's a difference. And you know, I'm just learning that myself.”
Ray walked away watching the boy dreamily spinning the wheels of his little red get-away car.
There was nothing much to see in the neighborhood of the terminal. Miami Beach was ten miles east and Ray didn't have the inclination to get any closer. The “beautiful people” had little appeal for him at the moment. Wedged now between buildings and crowds and traffic, he was longing for a large landscape, anticipating his seat on the bus that would take him away from this mess. On a corner near the terminal, a skinny black woman in her late teens walked up to him. She was wearing a short see-through sheer midnight blue dress which vividly exposed her missing bra and panties. Atop her scrawny frame sat a blonde wig that might have belonged to one of the original Supremes. Her eyes were glassy and a sad countenance enveloped her and spread like lava from her sunken face to her crimson high heels.
“You a cop?”
Ray laughed at the idea. “No, I'm no cop.”
“Wanna go out,?” she asked with a warm smile that quickly disarmed him.
Her voice seemed to float on the humid Miami air like cloud particles; thin and vaporous and threatening to dissolve at the first sign of disturbance.
“No. No thanks.”
“C'mon, let's go out. I'm sick of those fat ugly old men. You're cuter than most of the guys around here.”
She was standing so close that Ray could see the youthfulness of her skin already chafing away under the strains of her life. Her hand lightly brushed against him. He felt a bizarre mixture of pity and eroticism. He reached into his pocket and gave her a twenty.
“Get something to eat, honey. You're too skinny.”
Ray was surprised to see the panic flash on her face. Her soft edges disappeared and she sprang back from him like a deer from a wolf.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, asshole! You trying to get me busted. Don't be handin' me no cash right out in the open like that! Fucker!”
Before he could think of something to say she had snatched the bill and was gone. He heard laughing from a few feet away. It was coming from a black man in his early sixties. He was wearing a blue-gray jumper with a Greyhound logo. Ray guessed he was a mechanic or terminal employee.
“Hey, that was pretty good. I never saw Jasmine disappear so fast!”
“You know her?”
“Well, she's a regular around here. Shouldn't have given her no money though. You can't win that game.”
“Oh, you know. If you give her a little cash for the gash, you wind up with the AIDS. If you just give her some money cause you wanna be a nice guy, she smokes it right up. Ain't no winnin' with no five dollar crack whore. No man, leave that sleeping dog lie—you don't want them kinda fleas!”
Ray made his way back to the terminal. He bought an apple and some chocolate chip cookies for the bus and in a few hours was once again riding the dog. The rumble of the engine, the events of the day, plus the uncomfortable sleep in the field the night before provided him with a welcome drowsiness. His eyes opened and shut as the bus crept northward. Around Daytona, Ray awoke as he sensed the bus shift direction and begin its westward tilt across the state. Thick pine forests replaced the neat rows of royal palms. The road began to rise and fall in gently undulating hills. Orange groves stretched for miles on either side. Towns became less frequent and not as crowded. A Florida different from Key West and Miami began to emerge from behind the scratched and dirty windows. As Ray drifted into a deep sleep, the bus swung west through the Florida Panhandle. It skirted the Gulf of Mexico and its sprawling tank farms, chugging smoke stacks, and geyser flames. Miniature cities lighted like prostrate Christmas trees glowed in halos on the horizon. Ray dreamed of middle-aged, fat, white men and women sitting around a board room table of rich, polished mahogany. They were all dressed in the same dark suits and colorless ties. They wore flimsy paper Taco Bell hats stained with the shocking crimson of salsa, of blood. Where their eyes should have been were dark depressions sunk into their skulls. The words they spoke were nonsense; Ray could only understand the numbers. They were talking and laughing about numbers, giant incomprehensible numbers. Then he heard a faint voice. It was familiar but strange. Eerily removed, the voice was singing weakly. And then he saw her. Marisol was dancing on the gleaming tabletop past the executives. Ray watched as she made her way toward the far end of the table. It seemed to stretch for miles, bordered by an endless succession of dark laughing faces. Then suddenly Ray was at the other end of the room. He watched Marisol coming closer and closer to the table's edge. He was afraid the little girl would fall and hurt herself. Suddenly he noticed the pit below. He shouted to warn her but she couldn't hear him; the laughing was becoming louder and louder, the singing weaker and weaker. He could only watch helplessly as she tumbled head first into the darkness. Then, surprised, he saw himself lunge after her and they fell together. She didn't seem to be aware of him or his attempts to pluck her out of the air. She was serene in her descent. Desperately he tried to grab her but she kept falling faster and faster. He had just managed to take hold of the little girl's hand when he was roused by a dull pressure on his shoulder.
“Hey, buddy. You having a nightmare up there or what? You're yelling all over the place. People are trying to sleep, yeah?”
On the seat next to Ray was a copy of the Miami Herald. He picked it up, eager for the distraction. He noticed the date. He asked the man in the seat behind him just to make sure. He counted the days on his fingers but came to the same answer. He even said it out loud hoping to make it seem more real: “A week. One goddamn week.”