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.