On Sunday morning, the single day of respite for the farmworkers Skeets Tanimura showered alone behind a patched-together fence and under an irrigation pipe hooked up to a hose. Before him had been families who went to church, next the families who didn’t, and then others, like him, and he always waited until the very end. Soap and cold water dribbled from the five drilled holes rinsed away sweat and oil, dirt caked on the back of his neck during the week, but it did nothing for the contempt that he felt for his body. A body paid for its fingers that picked and packed, for a back that stooped in muddy fields, a body that flopped on the hardened ground when it was desperate for sleep. Each time the crop was done, he’d move that body to the next farm and boss, from season-to-season, year-to-year. And he blamed his body for being locked up during the war, a body so Japanese that no amount of pumice could scrape the Jap away.
One day, the families skipped the shower and hiked along a muddy ditch dredged by previous laborers, Skeets ambling behind, until they reached a minor tributary weakened by the maze of irrigation lines that watered crops across the California valley. In that stream, they washed their clothes, slapping them against a granite boulder and hanging them to dry on a slatted fence before wading through the mud or dog-paddling from one side to the other to bask in the summertime sun. He dreamt that one day he’d guide a canoe down that ditch to a real river, a waterway to the delta that would take him to the San Francisco Bay. He’d paddle across that, too, and make his way past the Golden Gate, past the Farallon Islands where great whites were said to roam, as far as that tiny boat would take him, across the Pacific in an attempt to reach Japan, a place that existed only in his dreams or nightmares. He had never been, and this was the only time he allowed himself to think of Michie, his girl who boarded a ship after the war and sailed to that defeated motherland, to live among enemies. To home. To the enemy. To become the enemy. To someplace unimaginable, and he had been scared to join her, adamant that he was American, that he treasured freedom. She laughed. Her tongue sharp as she told him she didn’t want him or this country anyways.
As he tried to sense the distance Michie had put between them, he imagined gray whales making the journey, how their spouts moved up and down the coast, their bodies sturdy enough to swim north to Alaska and east across the Bering Straits, and that those animals held enough faith to follow an ancient path along the coast that was parallel to one taken by humans eons ago. His mother had taken a boat across the sea to become a bride, and that same passage had stolen Michie away. In his nightmares, the boat would be toppled by waves the height of eucalyptus trees, the ache of cold water settling into his bones, and he’d wake knowing that he lacked the courage and imagination to find her.
While Skeets and the families showered on Sundays, Gene and the other young bachelors would run from the Saturday pay line to the evening showers as quickly as they could. They bathed behind the fenced-in deck that was nothing more than two-by-fours nailed together with a plywood cover, and someone would twist a spigot, and six of them would soap up and wash, gargle and dance in the brisk water, rinsing away soil and sweat, numbing their aching muscles. They braved the cold even in November because if you wanted to dance close with the girls, you couldn’t smell of the earth, like beasts of labor, and sometimes Gene would kick off his shoes on the way, and jump under the water fully clothed, rubbing the bar of soap against his shirt and jeans and socks, stripping naked when the suds ran clean from his trousers, and then he’d hustle back to their shack with his shoes and a towel around his waist, tossing the dripping cloth over a line in their shared shack to change into one of his two suits, scoop wax from a tin to massage into his hair, and brush his teeth and tongue, all in a hurry, so that he could saunter into town without breaking a sweat.
"Tonight’s the night," Gene told him. "I’m going to get you to dance."
It was Saturday, and Gene’s face was glistening from the shower, the comb’s teeth smoothing his dark hair into thin, wavy lines, his nails remarkably clean, his hands strong and dark. The longer Skeets hunched over in the fields the stronger his back grew until he curved like the others, just as his mother had bent in the fields before the war, and as he watched the other soiled and crooked workers, he saw how similar they all looked stooped like that, no matter if they were Mexican or Filipino, Japanese or Chinese, Oakie or otherwise, and he often discussed this with Gene while they lied in their respective cots at night. Gene always wondered what part was from his Mexican mother or his Filipino father, if one half of him could be categorically different from the other, the weight of two people battling it out in the confines of his body. It don’t matter much, Gene would conclude. Mexican or Filipino, we’re all the same, and we’ll all die if we don’t stand together. I’ll keep moving and trying just the same, and we’ll die just the same, too, God willing. But Skeets didn’t believe in God or heaven or hell. He didn’t believe in solidarity or organizing or even that the work was unbearable. It was hard, but it was work. A part of him did not mind the simplicity of living close to the land, and in quiet moments, he longed to return to simplicity of imprisonment--the barracks, the mess hall, the eternity of doing nothing. They were safe while among their own people, while clustered together and hiding, while giving into fate, and this was especially true when Skeets was close enough to Michie to touch and grow warm, their lives secure and wordless. He accepted these laws of nature: that bodies would deteriorate under the soil like the carcasses of rats or possums they found in the fields, the bones brittle to the touch or crumbling and decomposed. Every one of them would die and disappear in the same way, no matter from what animal the bones had been made, no matter from what country they had come.
But Skeets did not believe in dancing, in the pleasure of movement. That was unnecessary.
“No dancing for me,” Skeets said.
“Just one dance, c’mon!” Gene said, pulling on his jacket and inspecting the buttons and creases in the light of their kerosene lantern. He tapped his feet against the loose floorboards and spun.
But what energy did Gene summon after his sixth day of work? What foolishness? Skeets would lie down to bed that night without a shower, his forearms and calves aching as he slipped into a sleep so deep he would never hear Gene slip back in the early morning.
What did matter to all of them was that they had come with a foolish determination, no matter if they or their forebears had come from Cebu or Tijuana, Okayama or Oklahoma. They believed that the gifts of the land--products of water, sun, and labor--would free them from suffering. The truth was that they could either believe or die, and so they pressed their bodies into the soil, sweat upon it, and forced the land to deliver upon that agreement. But that same impulse, an ambition or sickness no one can say, made them fickle workers, moving from farm-to-farm, sometimes mid-harvest, in search of better pay or improved accommodations, for a different boss who paid more, or one who spoke without scorn. For Skeets, after nearly three years of captivity, the constant motion saved him and became his north star: keep moving, keep working, keep hoping.
That summer, Gene and Skeets had started in the San Fernando Valley and trekked north, following the ripening of crops in search of the largest paychecks from the produce most prone to spoilage: stone fruit, berries, lettuce. Along the way, Gene befriended all sorts, families, kids, Mexicans, Filipinos, new workers, and old ones. Skeets was a project of his, two outcasts joined together. Gene was always recruiting for the union, in search of fearless workers who could speak as fast as they could pack peaches, and who could convince others to stand together and starve together. And he was always dancing.
Theirs was a friendship built on mutual stubbornness. A unionist and an independent. A dancer and a wallflower. A Filipino and a Japanese.
But as easily as Gene trusted in the goodness of others, in their common cause, Skeets had learned to trust no single group, no leaders and certainly not the followers. He wouldn’t join no matter how much Gene pleaded or cajoled. No meetings, no petitions, no union cards. No organizations for workers, for Americans, or for Japanese. But Gene was one-of-a-kind, a Mexican-Filipino, a loner himself, and the isolation that came with that distinction was something that Skeets could trust, and a bond that allowed them to become friends and roommates even if Skeets didn’t believe in unions or memberships or even dancing.
“The first time wasn’t fun, but this dancehall is different.” Gene was recruiting him again. “I’ll even let you wear my dad’s old suit.” Gene held it up, his hair glistening in the candlelight.
“You said they’re all the same. Loud music, dancing, drinking. Girls and Filipinos. Us Japanese don’t dance. I can hardly think with all the noise.”
“Exactly. No thinking allowed. Just music and dancing.”
Skeets sat on his bunk staring at the suit that Gene had laid out for him before picking it up and slowly pulling on the pants, buttoning the shirt. The waist was loose now that he had lost weight in the fields. Gene’s old man had worn it the night of the Watsonville riots, tossing bottles at the cops under the cover of night, so as Skeets stepped out into the November evening, he felt daring in a way he had not felt in a long time. They caught a ride in the back of a pick-up and then made their way past the pool hall where they saw a few of the other crew members before taking the stairs to the Lonely Gentleman’s Club. Women perched on stools against the wall, crossing and uncrossing their stockinged legs, waiting to be asked to dance, waiting for a damp ticket to be pressed into their hands.
“I’ll buy ten and give you one,” Gene said. “One dance, and you’ll be hooked.”
“I won’t need the one,” Skeets said, but Gene had already left to stroll past the girls, hands in his pockets except to tip his hat and wink as if he were making a promise. They were Hungarian or Polish from Chicago, Mexican from Guadalajara or Tijuana, from Oklahoma or Texas, and one Chinese girl had come from Los Angeles. At least that’s what Gene had told him, and Skeets watched how his friend leaned in to whisper and stretch back to catch her expression, if they laughed or smiled, or if they looked away or sloped toward him to speak. Signs of what they’ll do, Gene would say.
“What do you say to them?” Skeets asked over the music, the single ticket creased in his hand.
“Every guy has their own lines that they keep secret, keys to unlock a treasure. But they might say things like I’ve never met a girl as pretty as you, or I can feel my heart pounding when I stand close, something to make them feel special.”
“That’s horrible,” Skeets said, though he wondered if anyone would say those lines to him, if Gene would.
“Those were my dad’s. It’s not what you say, but how. The sound, how close you get when you whisper. He could get any girl to fall in love with one dance. That’s what my mother said, and she was the one who refused that love. She’d take his ticket, dance his socks off, leave him sweating like they’d just fucked in the valley heat, and not pay him any attention once the tune ended. It drove him mad, made him come back for more, and that’s when he learned to dance like no one else.”
“That would have been something to see,” Skeets said, wondering if Gene was jealous or proud.
“That’s how I was born,” Gene said, a strained smile masked his face covering his usual ease. “It’s in my blood.”
The hall was filled with men who came from farms 30 miles out, a whole wall of them. Even without dancing Gene controlled the floor, pacing up and down one side as the horn lines that blasted through the speakers trilling his body. He’d stop and shake one leg, like a dog, or spin as a trombone slid down the scale. No one else dared to go first. That’s why he stalked the floor that way, as if to goad anyone else to take the stage from him while he waited for the right song to glide to this girl or that one, and as he brandished his ticket waiting to see which girl would signal her desire, one who wanted it most. Skeets sensed that the show was as much for the girls as for himself. Not only would he lift them away from this job, from tending these men, he would join them in flight so that all of them could rise to the heavens to a life beyond the dingy rooms and watered-down drinks, a life far away from the scratchy records hissing Cab Calloway or Tommy Dorsey, melodies from before the war, songs that reminded them of a better place and time, of innocence and hope.
The music rattled the speakers, pressing the limits of the Sears Silvertone system that blared 78s, slow at first, and then faster, which caused Gene to jump up and take a girl to the center. The whole crowd moved in and swallowed him as he twirled and hopped, shucked and jived. Later that evening, they might play Vic Damone’s “You’re Breaking My Heart,” the beat slow enough for a face to lean against a shoulder or a hand to drop a few inches lower. The most adventurous might steal a girl into a shadowy corner to say and do who knows what. But those songs hadn’t come, yet, and with the ticket damp in his palm, the only thing he could think about was a dance in Tule Lake Internment Camp, the band from Heart Mountain, and him a wallflower that served punch. That was the night that Michie had asked him to dance, a forward gesture, gutty and bold, something he admired in her, but his body refused the music. When she extended an open palm, he stared at the pink lines against her pale skin and froze. The musicians were playing loudly and out of tune, her friends smirking a few steps away. But there was no joy in those gyrations and knee bends, in well-timed twirls that seemed like a prelude but led to nowhere. Dancing wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either. By then, gravity had pulled her arm down, her offer dropping to her side. She never asked again.
If only he could have been like Gene, the Filipino from Delano who had been born because of dance and who felt it was not just a duty to bring joy to the women who took his tickets but his destiny. For these aspirations, Skeets tried not to feel jealous, but how could Gene turn each hip swivel or light touch of a finger into unmistakable beauty? When Gene would spin, a patina of joy would radiate onto nearby dancers who would abandon themselves in this pleasure, raising to their toes as if they had begun to levitate.
Gene danced like he was in love, like each song was an act of commitment, like he’d propose right there on the spot. It didn’t matter if her breath smelled of goulash or radishes, or her arms jiggled or ankles were too thin or thick. It didn’t matter if they were broke and from Chicago, a rebellious girl from town trying to make money to run away, if they were mothers or even grandmothers; he was attentive and wonderful in those moments, and that was the difference between the two men. Gene who danced for his partner and their joy, not like others who danced to claim territory, plodding steps of ownership and power. Not like Skeets.
As he watched Gene clutch and twirl different dancers with all his charm and delight, he was not so sure. In the bodies on the floor, Skeets sensed a different bend, a different willingness in each. Some curled and cowered, while others opened their arms wide, searching for fulfillment that came from within. Some danced strictly for the ticket money, their bodies twisting at the same tilt, sometimes faster, but with expressions that seemed hollow, gazes that were distant. Gene danced with them anyways, as if his gallantry alone could spark a glimmer of interest, of euphoria.
“Sometimes their faces say, no,” Gene said, wiping his brow after three straight songs with that same girl. “But their bodies want more.”
But how did anyone know what another body could want? What another was allowed to take?
“I’m not going to use this,” Skeets said, handing over the damp ticket.
In her body, Skeets watched a Polish girl hold her body stiff in Gene’s arms, the rigidity a form of strength, of resistance. The blinding optimism that kept workers moving in the fields or on that dance floor had deserted Skeets. What was one person’s pleasure, was another’s drudgery. Without that hope came heaviness, a leaded weight pressing on his chest. The air felt thin.
Gene did not hesitate to bring the ticket back to that same girl for one last song. To prove himself. He danced as if possessed, pressing closer and spinning tighter circles that allowed for one more rotation, as if he were trying to stun her into submission. Instead of joy, Gene danced with hostility, as if he were prying desire loose from inside the woman. An ugliness rose to Gene’s face, what Skeets felt that afternoon with Michie, desire masking brutality. Or was it righteous anger pointed in the wrong direction, at the innocent, at those who had given their trust? Before Skeets could turn and deny what he had seen, the woman was flung aside, and she caught herself on the shoulder of another.
A large hand grabbed Gene by the collar and dragged him across the floor, his heels dragging behind and body flailing as if a noose had been pulled tight. As Gene disappeared between the dancers, the woman’s hands clasped her bosom, a blank face gave way to a simpering smile. Had she dared Gene to commit such indiscretion? To trap him with his own virility and hubris? Skeets took two steps in her direction as if she had caused this, but Gene’s voice cut through the music, a shout, and they both turned. The paying men grabbed their partners’ wrists and forced motion back into their bodies. The music was still loud enough to stifle any commotion. By the time Skeets reached the doorway at the top of the stairs, a light had been smashed. There was cursing and a yelp from his friend.
The soft whinny launched him into action, and he ran down the stairs two at a time. The assailants hadn’t even taken him down some alley and were pummeling him in front of the club. One man kicked the lump of a body curled on the ground, yelled for him to get the hell out of town, as another with a fedora gave him another kick for good measure. They wailed until the heave of their breaths overtook Gene’s whimpers. The white glint of sick pleasure flashed, and he knew he shouldn’t wait, but there were too many for him. He remained in the doorway's shadow, ready to retreat up the stairs to the dance, hoping for pause, for the heft of a bat in his hand.
“Leave him alone!” Skeets yelled. They had all but finished, and he could make out an angled chin or a moustache, the creases in their suits and the curving brim of their hats. I called the police, he said.
The suits turned and consulted one another with glances, measuring his claim, and one body stomped over to Skeets but was called back. As quickly as they had pulled Gene, they left, turned past the pool hall, and disappeared. Skeets knelt and touched Gene’s head, his hair damp with blood, his breath laboring. Except for the occasional handshake, Skeets had not touched another body for months, maybe longer. He rubbed the blood coating his thumb and finger. It turned tacky, the color invisible in the dark. A shiver ran up his spine. He eased Gene to his feet, and trudged between the road and ditch back to their shack in silence.
“They were already tired,” Gene said while lying in the darkness on his bed.
“Exhausted from hitting so much.” He touched his face and then his back and belly, with each bruise a wince.
“I followed you right down. It wasn’t more than a minute.”
“You took forever,” Gene said, peering down at the wet cloth that he had clamped against his left eye. His voice had lost its enthusiasm, its hope, its desire. “I’m sure it was the farmers who sent them,” he said. “They told me that I better stop kissing the girls, but I know it’s not about the girls. It’s about the union.” Gene winced as he dunked the rag into a pan of cool water.
In the candlelight, the bulge glistened with sweat and pus, and Gene drank water from a tin cup, swished it around his mouth, and spat onto the wooden floor slats just above the soil below. As Skeets folded Gene’s father’s suit, the fabric a bit wrinkled and forlorn, he thought he might disagree, that it did not matter how quick his feet or how fast he could twirl, that the pleasures of men did not by necessity become theirs. But those thoughts were his own, and that allowed him to accept his fate and his body, a carapace that could barely accommodate all the hated and all of his desire.
That night the two of them hardly spoke, not discussing what they would do, since they could do nothing. No more dancing or unions, no picket lines or protests. The shack they had shared had once felt luxurious compared to the other rooms stuffed with two or three families, with kids and elders who couldn’t work or pay their way, but that night the room shrank. The walls on either side were easily touched by outstretched arms. The dirt visible through the slats beneath their feet. They didn’t discuss where, but Gene would have to leave. The question was whether Skeets would join him.
Through the cracks in the walls, Skeets could see streaks of indigo reaching across the sky, and Gene thrust all of his belongings into two bags. As he turned at the door, he dabbed a cloth against the swelling that seemed ready to burst.
“Where you headed?”
“The coast, the mountains. Alaska, Mexico. Anywhere that’ll have me.”
Before Skeets could say that he’d join him, that he’d travel to Alaska or Patagonia, up or down the Pacific Coast, words he should have used when Michie left him for good, Gene spun out the door in a pirouette and a cloud of dust, an echo of sunrise as his shoes stamped the cold away. Hard soles tapped down the wooden stairs, tap, tap, tap. The door banged closed.
With a quaver in his throat, Skeets called out for him to wait.
But for what and for whom?
He heard the pivot of a hard-bottomed sole against soil, and then a feathered whoosh rose above. His clothes and books, a cup and pens, all his belongings had been packed, yet, and were strewn across his cot. He tried to fit it all into his bag. A dirty sock hung out like a puppy’s tail, the lip of a tin cup bent when he sat on it. The duffel dropped to the floor.
At the door, the sun’s rays were cast against a bank of soft clouds, and a single goose flew toward a V-shaped flock angling at the horizon. That single bird stopped flapping to catch the rhythm of the group before joining the back of the line. It curled its long neck back for a moment, a goodbye or apology, and then the flock disappeared. A lightness overcame his body. His feet felt nimble, ready to turn, to move. Skeets paused, and below he could feel the earth’s rotation, an eternal whirl that for a moment held everything in place. Even him.