July 9, 2009

napa, week one: two story fragments

Four days ago I started as an intern at a winery in Napa. I'm working with twenty Mexicans. They're all very nice people, almost always smiling and joking around. They package and bottle and clean and drive forklifts. They work hard and don't complain. Some speak English, but most don't, and for that reason I'm sort of isolated, unable to say much.

So far I've had one major task. There are all these big silver tanks that sit atop steel stands. I work with this guy Juan, and all day we sand the rust and old, flaky paint off of the stands, then we give them two coats of blue paint. In the time I've been working there (forty hours) Juan and I have completed seven or eight tanks. It's hard.

A week and a half ago I wrote this in a notebook:
"I look forward to Napa - to be put to work & make some money, to be broken in."

Today I kept thinking about how in six months I'm not going to be the same as I am now. I will be different. In my life I've worked hard, and I've worked long, but this will be, by far, the first time that I've worked so hard, for so long. Right now I'm at forty hours a week. Not bad. But before long it will be seventy-two and up.

I go home at the end of the day and look in the mirror, and I'm so dirty that it looks as if I've been doing all the shoveling on a coal train. I have paint all down my arms and on my clothes and in my hair. I take a cold shower and have to scrub to get it all off my body. My hands are dry and rough from the sanding, and out in the country it's slow and I'm sort of lonely. Yesterday I had a piece of scrap paper and a pen and I wrote, "I can't help but wonder what it would feel like, for a beautiful girl, to have her bare ass grabbed by these hands."

The next six months will do something to me. They might sharpen me, or they could dull me to a block of wood. Whatever happens, it should be good.

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Juan and I sit in the shade on pieces of cardboard beneath a tank. We wear goggles and respirators and sand the rust and old paint from the legs of a steel support. This fills the air with dust. Time passes slowly, but I try to think only about the task at hand, instead of counting down until the next break, or until lunch, or to the time when I can go to my car and leave.

Fortunately for me, Juan speaks more English than I do Spanish. Still, our conversations are strained and disjointed, and sometimes we just have to accept that we don't know what we're talking about, and drop it and move on to the next thing. But at the same time, it's as if this challenge in communicating grants us the freedom to talk about whatever the hell comes to mind. Rather than talking in depth on certain topics, we touch only the surface of ten times as many.

We sit beside each other and work on this thing and try not to splatter paint, and we work to better know each other's language. I tell him that I want to learn Spanish, and he asks why. I say, Me gusta Mexico, y me gusta la comida de Mexico, y me gusta chicas Mexicanas.

Juan is thirty-two, and has spent most his life in a small town in Mexico. He's a very curious guy, and although he's been in America for eight years now it's as if he's hardly ever spoken to an American, and that might just be the case.

Juan asks if I have ever been in a boat, and I say yes, and then I ask if he ever has. He hasn't. He doesn't know how to swim. He asks where the Titanic sank and I say I'm not sure, Europa, somewhere, I think.

He asks if I ride horses, and I say I haven't since I was poquito, and he corrects me, chiquito. He asks why, and I say that I don't have a horse. He saw a big horse dance once. It's hard to train a horse, he tells me. You need - he can't think of the word - patience, I tell him.

I ask if he has a wife, and he says no. He asks if I do, and I say no. He asks how old I am and I say twenty-four. He laughs and says that I'm too young to be married. He asks if I have a novia, and I say no, and he laughs and asks why not, and I say that I'm not sure.

Juan asks what kind of car I have and if I know how to fix it, and I say that I drive a Volvo and that I don't know anything about it. He asks how many miles I have on it and I say I can't remember, but I tell him that there was once a Volvo that drove a million miles, and he can hardly believe it.

He has a girlfriend, but she lives in Reno. He goes there every two weeks to see her. He asks if I've been to Reno and I say I've driven through once or twice. He asks if I've been to Las Vegas and I say no. I ask if he gambles, and he says that he doesn't have the money. And he likes the discos, but he doesn't have the money.

When Juan was younger and living in Mexico he used to break horses. He says that he looked into buying a horse in America but was surprised to find out it cost 35,000 dollars. I tell him they sometimes cost a million.

He tells me that Napa is sort of boring, that there aren't many women. I tell him I thought that might be the case. He says that there are many women in Mexico, more women than men, and that if you have a nice car the women will like you. And I get excited about this. He's quick to remind that if you don't have a nice car the women don't care about you.

He asks me, Do you like Michael Yackson? Sí, sí, I tell him. And the Yackson Five? Sí, sí. And Carlos Santana? Sí.

Juan wants to know if I like milk, and I say sure, I like milk. But I like it more with chocolate. He tells me there's a tradition in Mexico where you squeeze milk straight from a cow's utter and into a glass, then mix in some chocolate and some alcohol. Sounds good, I tell him.

Juan turns to me all of a sudden with a big smile and says, Carlos, let's go to the rodeo!
Yeah? I ask, excited that he's just said this.
No, he says. Juan doesn't know of any rodeo, but he's been to one in San Jose.

Juan asks if I heard the news. No, I haven't. He tells me that his cousin lived twenty five miles north, in Calistoga, and that someone died, was shot, and for a while it's unclear who did the shooting and who was killed. At first it sounded like Juan's twenty-six-year-old cousin killed someone. But it turns out that it was his cousin who died. It happened a week and a half ago. It was over a girl. The killer fled.
It was eight days before his cousin's body was sent to Mexico for burial, and it cost 8,000 dollars.
As best as he can, Juan asks me how long Americans wait before burying the dead, and as best as I can I answer him. Two days, maybe.
Dos Días? he asks.
Sí. And in Mexico? I ask.
Two days, he says, and he looks at the ground.
Some time goes by. It's quiet.

Later, Juan turns to me and says, Carlos, let's go to Reno!

The man who killed Juan's cousin was arrested yesterday in Los Angeles. Juan asked me how long he'd be in jail and I told him 'forever.'

5 comments:

marty said...

gringos te gusta millions.

nicber said...

good stuff

Anthony Nikolchev said...

that was fine reading, especially in a country where all my conversations are like that. i feel your loneliness, amigo. viva hoping that the end will change you....

Trot said...

you and juan should just twitter to each other

Scott Cooper said...

Did Michael Yackson eat Yumbo Yacks?