In mid-September, the cabernet sauvignon grapes are ready for harvest. As I round the embankment, I see John and Alejandro downslope. They wave me in. I ditch my car amongst the oaks, tossing the keys on the front seat and grabbing my sunscreen and water bottle in one motion. As I walk the edge of the field, I peek between the dark green rows, listening to the uneven firing of a tractor motor and judging where to enter.
The harvest team works fast. A young man with a crew cut pulls fat bunches of fruit from the vines and drops them into a yellow bin at his feet. He doesn’t stop picking to locate grapes in the dense leaf canopy; he anticipates where his hands should go next, scanning while picking. As he finishes clearing a vine, he pushes the yellow bin through the loose soil with his foot. Snap, snap, rustle, whoosh. When the bin is full, he hoists it on his head and runs toward a trailer attached to the back of the tractor. He dumps grapes into one of three gray totes and sprints back to his last spot. Other men emerge from the vines; they help each other by passing bins like a fire brigade.
John and Alejandro are standing on the running boards of the trailer, removing leaves from the incoming bunches and chatting. John points at me. “Finally got a hoodie, I see,” he says. They laugh.
We remove leaves from the harvested grapes and John explains that Alejandro is managing the harvest crew this year. John asks Alejandro when the grapes from the vineyard next door will be harvested.
“At least another month,” Alejandro says.
“Why are yours so much later than here?” I ask. Alejandro explains that they prune for higher yield. “When there are more grapes per vine, the crop takes longer to ripen,” he says. “I was planning to go to Mexico in November. Now I’m not.”
“You have a green card, right?” John asks.
“I’ve had it for a long time.”
“Your parents got amnesty in the eighties? From Reagan?” John adjusts his ball cap.
“Yes, but I had to cross twenty years ago,” Alejandro says. He explains that it wasn’t as hard to enter the U.S. back then, but it was still scary. He says that he climbed a wall in a city instead of walking across the border in a rural area. “Some of my friends walked, but they knew how to camp. I didn’t know how to do that.”
Alejandro describes the business of illegal emigration from Mexico to the U.S.: payments, transportation, strategy, and professional logistics. At the border proper, emigrants are launched in large groups with the understanding that some will be defeated and some will not. He says that everyone knows this is the deal, that this is the social contract for having a chance for a better life. I ask him if he knows people who have died trying.
“Yes. I had friends who disappeared in the mountains. Maybe they got lost.” We pause and pick leaves while the horror of the gamble sinks in. “But it is worth the risk,” he says.
“I can’t imagine how hard that decision is,” I say.
“These are good jobs.”
“Does the Mexican government help its citizens?” I ask.
“You do what has to be done,” he says.
His non-answer reminds me of the time I tripped on a low-hanging chain outside of a Mexican ice cream shop. The store owner said that she was annoyed the police wouldn’t let her remove the chain. The hazard was irrelevant to the authorities; Mexican police expected people to avoid tripping on it. She said that if you get in a car wreck in Mexico, both drivers get arrested, one for causing the accident and the other for not preventing it. I thought she was kidding, but later I saw a bilingual sign that said avoid being run over and avoid eating something strange.
Alejandro steps down from the running board. “I’m grateful to California. This is a great state,” he says. He helps a young man unload his bin.
I want to correct Alejandro, tell him all the bad things about our country, all the ways I’ve been hurt by it, but it occurs to me that I could be wrong. It might be the best of all possible worlds.
The more I stand around chatting, the more I feel like a freeloader. I ask whether my picking would disrupt the system.
“This team’ll get paid for a full day, even though they’ll be done in a couple hours,” John says. Alejandro explains that sometimes teams get paid by the hour and sometimes by the ton. Teams get reputations for quality and speed. The good ones are hired more often and under preferred terms. Since they divide the pay evenly, teams are tight-knit. Slackers are not tolerated.
I find my friend, Felippe, and stand next to him like a kid until he pays attention to me. He shows me a junction in the stem that he uses to break off a bunch of grapes without damaging the plant. I try, but I can only snap the smallest bunches. I accidentally squish grapes and can’t kick the bin along in the dirt. I am incompetent and slowing progress. Felippe seems tired and I worry that I’m bothering him. I wander back to the tractor. John offers me a job that I can do. “Can you take some pictures for the website?” He asks.
“Sure!” I climb onto the gas tank of the tractor and take action shots: men helping each other, grapes raining into the totes, Felippe and Alejandro talking.
When the harvest team finishes, Alejandro asks if I want to ride the tractor back to the winery. I wrap my leg under a bar on the side rail, hang on using my leg muscles, and take a video of the grapes being pulled from the vineyard. We pass the blue farm house, the matching tasting room, and slow down in front of the storage shed across from the winery. After we stop, Alejandro tells me to hold on tight. He raises the trailer platform at one end, and the three full totes slide onto the ground. Butterflies and bees gather for the feast.
I ask for a picture of the harvest team next to the grapes. The men stand tall and square their jaws. The image reminds me of a tin-type from the Old West; I imagine others might see a portrait of Steinbeck’s Joad family.
It is nearly dusk when I pull my car into the driveway of our rental house. Tom is gone; his band is playing a happy hour gig at a brewery. Our son, Nathan, is sitting at the kitchen table with both cats at his feet. He and I eat tomatoes with slices of onion and blue cheese dressing. For desert, we have ice cream from the container.
I’m exhausted. I say goodnight and hug my son. He hugs me back – a big, comfortable hug – and I see our years together flutter through my mind in a hopeful preview of the flash before my death. I breathe the complicated fragrance of his future and feel the warmth of now. I’m home.
When I climb into bed, I notice that I have frying pan-sized bruises on my legs from the tractor ride. It was worth it. This is a good job.