Excerpt, COMMON LIVES, an unpublished novel.
There was a clean Latino man in the seat beside Eugene on the Greyhound bus, who alternately dozed, or read from Antoine Saint Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. His clothes were clean: dark new Levis and a good blue cotton denim shirt. He also had a clean white straw cowboy hat with a sedate blue and white band. Tucked under his elbow, between his body and the window wall of the bus was a new black leather jacket – not the kind bikers wore, but a skirted coat a gentleman might wear to take a lady out. He also had a small brown paper bag with food for the trip – sausage and cheese, baguette of French bread, small condiments, crackers, fruits and vegetables in sealed plastic sacks.
Eugene met him when their bus driver narrowly avoided collision with a highballing semi-trailer headed north in a hurry. Eugene banged into his seatmate as the bus made a wild swing onto and off the shoulder of the road.
“Sorry!” Eugene yelped, more frightened than he wanted to be.
“No problem!” the man said, clinging to the seat in front of them with one strong brown hand. Saint-Exupéry was clutched securely in the other.
“Some drivers,” Eugene said as their driver regained control.
“Guess he has to make some time.”
“Eugene Formsby,” Eugene introduced himself on impulse, holding out his hand.
“Armand Garcia,” Armand said, shaking Eugene’s hand.
“Headed for Portland?” Eugene asked. Armand’s hand was hard as horn.
“Wilsonville,” Armand replied. “I follow the crops.”
“You’re a migrant worker?” Eugene asked in disbelief. Armand fit none of the stereotypes. He was clean and neat. He wasn’t traveling in a caravan of scruffy dirty brown men. He wasn’t drunk.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” Armand said reasonably. He smiled. He had even white teeth, obviously well-cared-for beneficiaries of good professional dental attention. “It’s a good livin’, if you don’t blow it all on booze and women. A lotta the guys do that: make a little money and piss it all away. They’re stupid. Sure, it’s a little bit of money here, but it’s a lot where I come from. I send my money home. I got a wife and kids in Mexico.”
“Did I see you reading Saint Exupéry?” Eugene asked, fascinated. He was meeting an industrious Mexican migrant farm worker – a clean one with a sense of responsibility. The world was truly a marvelous place.
“Yes,” Armand said promptly. “Would you like to hear a passage?”
“And suddenly,” Armand read, “I had a vision of the face of destiny. Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by locking up with cement every chink and cranny through which light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conversations of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as a man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet, and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois to Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay from which you were shaped has hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.’
“Good stuff, ain’t it?” Armand asked, smiling.
“It’s uncanny,” Eugene replied, nonplused. Did someone send you here to read that to me? He wondered, imagining all sorts of divine interventions and messages from Beyond.
“I’m tryin’ to improve my mind,” Armand said amiably. “I don’t always wanna be pickin’ crops. That’s stupid. Gonna kill my back one day and then I won’t be able to do it anymore. I’m thinkin’ of studyin’ book-keepin’. What do you think?”
“Well, book-keeping is a reliable occupation,” Eugene said seriously, dismayed that the reader of Saint Exupéry was going to intentionally crash land in the desert.
“I was thinkin’ more along the line of tax preparation, ya’ know?”
“Uh-ha,” Eugene replied, nodding.
“You’ve got a family?” Armand asked politely.
“You should have a wife and children,” Armand said reasonably. “They make your life mean something. A lot of those guys I work with, they don’t know that. They don’t work for the family. They come up here and get drunk and wild and land in jail, or get run outta the country by the INS. Stupid sonsabitches.”
“INS,” Eugene said, “that’s Immigration Naturalization Service?”
“That’s them. They’re not too bad if you don’t get stupid.”
“You get hassled?”
“Sometimes, but I travel by bus and keep pretty much to myself. Some of those other guys all chip in, ya’ know? Buy an old junker car. They get a little drunked up and ride along about a hundred miles an hour and get busted by a local cop. Man, that’s stupid! Local cops can be real mean.”
“I didn’t know migrant workers came all the way up to Oregon.”
“Sure, all the time. We follow the crop right up into Canada. We’re chasing the harvests, don’t ya’ know?”
“Well, yeah, sure, I know that. That’s what migrants do.” Eugene felt stupid.
Sometime around noon, the bus broke down.
“I always bite off a hard chunk,” Armand said as they stood by the side of the road. The bus was disabled, its rear hatch open, smoky steam clouding up into the cool Oregon air in thin wet tendrils. Passengers stood straggled along the roadway, or seated on their luggage, which had been removed in preparation for a relief bus, which was expected “momentarily” for the past two hours and twenty-three minutes. Passing motorists speeding by on their way north glanced curiously at the stranded bus riders. No highway patrolman appeared. The driver smoked cigarettes, paced and scowled, stopping periodically to deal with impatient frustrated passengers.
“A hard chunk?” Eugene asked disinterestedly, holding Armand’s dog-eared Saint-Exupéry, which he’d asked to see. He longed for the relief bus. He leaned into its vision, hoping that it would soon put an end to his seemingly endless return to Portland. Perhaps the fates were trying to tell him something – like, maybe, you’re a loser, go no farther.
“If it’s hard to chew,” Armand continued, “I try to spit it out. If it don’t spit out, I have to tough my way through. Life is like that; you don’t get to spit the damn thing out, until you croak.”
Reassuring, Eugene thought.
“I been thinkin’ lately on how man is an animal,” Armand said seriously. “Unlike the other animals, he’s the only one who gets to remember much of anythin’ – includin’ hates and discontents – and the only one who knows he’s gonna die. Pretty depressin’. It’s also the human condition which everybody reads about – which some people think died out with those Frenchmen, sittin’ in Paris cafes, stickin’ knives in their hands to make a point durin’ the Nazi occupation; or walkin’ the beaches in self-exile in plague-ridden Morocco. Camus had it bad. Malraux and Sartre, all those thoughtful Frenchmen. All life’s absurd. It’s the human condition. Man’s fate. It all comes home.”
Eugene stared at Armand.
“Hey, who are those guys?” Armand asked with sudden concern.
Eugene looked around. There were about a dozen, furtive men trying to slip into the small crowd of stranded bus riders. The men fit Eugene’s stereotype: dirty, rough-looking Latino laborers, wearing faded jeans, straw hats, black mustaches, flannel shirts and heavy, thick-soled shoes.
“Shit,” Armand said furiously. “Fuckin’ wetbacks ruin it for everybody! Stupid motherfuckers!”
“What are they doing here?” Eugene asked nervously.
“I don’t know,” Armand replied angrily. “Catchin’ the bus, I guess! The stupid mother fuckers are gettin’ tickets from the mother fuckin’ driver!”
Sure enough, Eugene saw the newcomers line up, clutching their money in grimed hands, pressing it on the surly Greyhound bus representative in his surly-gray bus driver’s suit. As he watched, a trio of official white sedans pulled off onto the shoulder of the road behind the bus. A second trio of sedans and a large white van pulled up in front.
The next few moments were bedlam.
The laborers began running in all directions. To Eugene’s horror, Armand went with them. Men in dark blue bulletproof vests and matching ball caps ran past Eugene in hot pursuit. The pursuers wore badges and the large letters INS were stenciled across their backs. They were armed with batons and carried side arms at their belts. Within minutes, the laborers returned, singly and in pairs, their hands handcuffed behind them, escorted by officers into the back of the white van. Eugene saw Armand among the last herded up to captivity. Armand did not see him. The van was sealed, the officers returned to their vehicles, got in and drove away, leaving a gaping busload of passengers still stranded at the side of the road.
The surly Greyhound bus driver looked furtively at all the ticket money he’d just collected and pocketed it. He glanced nervously at the passengers and smiled at a nearby older woman, who looked at him disapprovingly, thinking his unctuous smile the most terrible anomaly thus far in a terrible trip.
My God! Eugene thought. Armand is a wetback! A goddamned literate wetback! How do I meet these guys? Why do I meet these guys? What the hell?
The relief bus arrived almost immediately thereafter and Eugene climbed aboard gratefully, still carrying Armand’s copy of Saint-Exupéry. He sat down with the book in his lap. Armand would stay on his mind for a long time, maybe for life; he had only touched the surface. He wished him well, commending him to his Catholic or Indian gods, or Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps. Impossibly, he hoped he would meet him again. He looked down at Saint-Exupéry and opened it to the part Armand had marked. He read:
“No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by locking up with cement every chink and cranny through which light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conversations of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as a man.”
Eugene turned to the first page and began to read.
UNITED FARM WORKERS :
To provide farm workers and other working people with the inspiration and tools to share in society’s bounty