The man sitting adjacent to me on the sweet potato truck discharges several ounces of tobacco juice onto the floor, wipes his lips and inquires if I would like to date his sister. Without further prompting the man describes her as a large boned mare with a healthy rack, hips for children and teeth still with some white. She comes with her own opinion, says the man, but you can knock that out of her easy enough. The man has fingers the size of bratwurst and a voice like a rutabaga stuck in a garbage disposal and when he speaks the other men on the bus do not look upon him directly.
I tell the man with bratwurst fingers, Thank you for the offer, but I am a married man with an infant son. I further explain that my wife and child are presently staying with my mother in law in Dubuque and that I am attempting to raise the necessary funds—and the man subsequently interrupts me by announcing, Ain’t no such ’Buke, ass fucker, and I respond, On the contrary, sir, there is in fact a Dubuque and it is located in eastern Iowa, on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois, and the man jabs a bratwurst finger in my right breast and says, What you doin’ down here, then, and I open my mouth to explain but the man only shakes me off and says, in his growling tone, My sister’s alright, cocksucker.
I sit in silence for the remainder of the journey while the man stares straight ahead and clenches his jaw and grips both knees with his powerful bratwurst fingers. The other men in the truck remain silent as well until two tiny individuals with thick mustaches begin chattering at one another in a foreign language, perhaps Spanish. At one point during their discussion the man with the bratwurst fingers leans over and deposits tobacco juice on the pant leg of one of the tiny mustached individuals and this produces a stare down for several highly uncomfortable minutes until the tiny mustached individual with tobacco juice on his pant leg makes a spitting motion back at the man with bratwurst fingers and then the two tiny mustached individuals resume their chattering only this time in more malevolent tones and with the inclusion of violent hand gestures.
I am mildly surprised to learn that the man with the bratwurst fingers is the field boss. Upon our arrival I fully expect the boss to meet us, perhaps a tall man with an eye patch and expensive rubber galoshes, but once we step down from the truck it is the man with the bratwurst fingers who orders us to retrieve a knife and a pail and to get our asses into the field. Thirty-five cents a pail, he says. Twenty pails an hour will get your seven bucks, anything less and your wastin’ my fuckin’ time. I follow the group of men into the field and observe as they kneel down and begin digging the sweet potatoes, a process that involves cutting off the roots and dropping the tubers into the pail one by one. I learn that the men are highly efficient at this activity whereas I am dreadfully slow and sloppy and continuously gouge my fingers with the knife. I fill only nine pails during the first hour and eleven and a half pails during the second hour and I fully expect the field boss to terminate my employment as he makes his rounds but he only glares and waves his hand in a circular motion as if to speed me up.
By the time lunch is served my hands are raw and bloody and my back aches severely. The field boss barks, Fifteen minutes for lunch, lazy bitches, and then, We got beef tongue today, three bucks a bitch. I experience anxiety because I am without funds of any kind and even though I am not at all eager to consume beef tongue I am ravenously hungry to the point that I am lightheaded and my limbs quivering. I then ask one of the tiny mustached individuals if he might have three dollars that I might borrow and he subsequently pulls the knife from his belt and jabs it in the air between us and utters several undecipherable words in an exaggerated manner. I retreat to the only tree in the immediate area and sit with my back against the trunk and proceed to suck on the dirty roots of the sweet potatoes. At this point the field boss brings over a paper plate full of beef tongue and refried beans and drops it on the ground in front of me so that some of the beef tongue falls in the dirt, and he says, Pay tomorrow, shit licker, as I nod vigorously and wolf down the nourishment which is surprisingly delicious.
After lunch I make a concerted effort to improve my performance and discover that I am more efficient if I keep my mind off my wounded hands and my aching back and instead picture my infant son laughing in the bathtub or smearing chocolate pudding on the wall. I also imagine the neighbor girl sunbathing in a shiny black bikini and a redheaded actress who depicts a pornography star in a controversial motion picture, and by mid-afternoon I am up to seventeen pails of sweet potatoes per hour, and at this point I notice the tiny mustached individuals are chattering in low tones and again making violent hand gestures, and then one of them sneers and begins walking swiftly for the field boss who is standing with his back to the tiny mustached individual and barking orders to one of the field hands, and the tiny mustached individual picks up his pace and brings up the knife and just before he reaches the field boss I yell, Field boss! and the field boss turns and smashes his bratwurst fist into the tiny mustached individual’s head, and the tiny mustached individual falls to the ground but still manages to bury the knife into the calf of the field boss, and the field boss takes a knee and once again drives his bratwurst fist into the tiny mustached individual’s head, opening his scalp and spilling blood into the field of sweet potatoes. Upon viewing the demise of his colleague the other tiny mustached individual raises his knife above his head and rushes the field boss while howling at an extremely high volume, and the field boss stands and steps forward and knocks the knife away with his left hand and with his right hand subsequently bashes the other tiny mustached individual in the middle of the face causing him to fall limply to the ground next to his colleague.
The remaining field hands look around at one other and after a moment begin tapping the blades of their knives onto their palms and shuffling closer to the field boss, and the field boss subsequently pulls the knife from his calf and says, in his growling tone, Get back to work, ass fuckers.