A City Up North
13 February 2014
Leo had found a spot where the shade of the elm tree covered his entire body, and he sat propped against its cool truck, wedged between the tree and the soil, allowing the slight damp seep into his trousers. Bink lay sprawled out half-in-half-out of the elm’s shade. They were on break from cutting tobacco and had each taken the time to load in a wad of chewing tobacco, then they’d remain as motionless as possible for the next quarter-hour. Leo moved the tin back into his pocket.
“Reckon it’ll rain again ‘safternoon?” Bink’s forearm was crooked over his eyes to avoid the light. Although Leo had a clear view to the horizon, he craned his head to look up at the sky past the elm leaves. Featureless blue. But it wasn’t the look of it, not clouds rolling in that meant an afternoon storm anyway.
“Yer,” Leo said. His wad of tobacco was moistening through as he rolled it from one set of molars to the other. The air was hot and held the thick threat of rain, allowing the passing on of electricity from clouds past the horizon, so a person could feel it coming hours off. At least this is what Leo thought. No one had ever taught him, he had figured it, and since he had, he had seldom been wrong. He had a knack for figuring things like that, and he thought that his knack was what would see him on his way one day.
Leo lifted a lazy hand and rubbed the tips of his finders together, as if to verify the theory of electricity in the air, then he let the hand drop back. He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “Yer,” he said again. The theory was simple enough. The rain was what allowed the lighting to jump down from the storm clouds to the ground. Any boy with a few years of schooling knew that electricity passed through water; the rain carried the lighting, the humidity carried it too, just not as much, over the horizon. Sweat was trickling down his neck and soaking into his collar.
Bink was looking at the other workers. A group of Mexican women had huddled at the edge of the field. One had a stick and was mindlessly tracing lines in a patch of dirt as the others watched. Leo watched Bink watching the Mexican women. Then he turn his attention to the others. Some in pairs or groups, each vying for patches of shade while maintaining the right distance from the other groups. Some were alone.
A big man named Francis sat alone on a wooden chair that he had found and placed under the shade of another elm, a spot where his size and demeanour staked his sole claim. All the other workers were sitting or lying on the ground, so Francis, in the chair, which was rickety and barely held his weight, sat taller than everyone. Even when hunching over to cut the tobacco plants Francis towered over the rest of them. He didn’t speak to anyone and his brow seemed to have a permanent furrow and crease, which made Leo think that some invisible twine was threaded between the big man’s forehead and chin.
Francis caught Leo watching him and Leo looked away, looked back to a few of the Mexican women to make it seem like mindless looking about. “How much time left?” he asked Bink.
Bink spat and turned his head back and said, “Say ten minutes? About that.”
Leo sniffed and rubbed his nose. He closed his eyes and rested his head back on the elm trunk. Chicago. Rain from an afternoon storm. Francis was still looking his way, he could feel the stare like a hand on his shoulder, at the back of his neck, mingling with the sweat. Then the bell signalled end of break, a sound that Leo had only heard in one other context; when he was a child and he saw Santa Claus, who was carrying a grease tin in one hand and swinging a mighty brass bell in the other.