Sammy leaned against the truck wheel in the shade. He watched the men on break from working in the fields. Emil joined him on the warm earth and took a swig from a water bottle. They nodded without speaking.
Another flatbed pulled in trailing a cloud of dry dust. Workers poured off the back of the truck and moved as one to the tub filled with iced water bottles. They milled about and joked among themselves.
Sammy and Emil pulled their kerchiefs up against the dust. They looked like movie bandits. Emil mopped his forehead with a grimy cloth. He tipped his bottle back and emptied it.
A van pulled into the yard and six fresh faces piled out. Rodriguez, shepherded them into a circle and assigned them duties for the rest of the day. The owner, Gene Thompson, sat in the shade, behind a folding table. He watched from under a broad brimmed hat and sun glasses. He only spoke to Rodriguez.
Sammy shook his head and looked at his watch. Emil asked, “How much time?”
“Two more hours.”
“Boss wants it done.”
“Does he really think these guys’ll make a dent? Hardly time to work up a sweat.”
Rodriguez blew his whistle and everyone groaned. Sammy emptied his bottle and spit. He crushed the thin plastic bottle and tossed it under the truck. They hoisted themselves onto the flatbed with their team and waited for Charlie. The tarp suspended over them billowed. It offered little shade, but it was a nice gesture.
Charlie mounted the cab and gunned the engine. The crew hung on as the truck lurched into the vast field. It idled slowly down the rows while the men lay on their stomachs, reaching out and tasseling the corn. It was simple work, taxing, and hot.
Two hours later, they were all back. It all looked the same but the shadows were longer. The same dust hung in the air and empty water bottles littered the yard. The workers stood restlessly awaiting their payout.
Rodriguez called for the morning hires to line up, followed by the noon hires and then those hired at three.
Then Rodriguez handed each, in turn, an envelope containing their allotment of cash.
Sammy and Emil huddled together, counting their pay. “It just never seems enough.”
Emil chuckled, “And yet, it’s better than nothing.”
“I just can’t get ahead.”
A commotion drew their attention. Charlie gestured at Rodriguez. They argued over the newbies’ pay. Sammy and Emil moved closer.
Rodriguez looked at Charlie impassively. “What is the problem?”
Charlie could barely contain himself. “My team put in a full day.”
“So? They were paid for a full day.”
“But these jerk offs came in for two hours and got the same pay. I want more for my men.”
“They received what they agreed to, right?”
“It isn’t fair.”
“You agreed to a fair price for the day. Is that what they got?” Charlie didn’t answer. “Why should you care how Mr. Thompson spends his money?” Rodriguez walked away.
Sammy started to speak in support of Charlie but Emil took his elbow.
“Would you have been happy with what you got if this didn’t come up?”
Sammy hesitated and then nodded, “As happy as could be. I need this.”
“Let’s go. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll make more tomorrow.”
Emil ushered Sammy into the tavern. Sammy had never been there. He stood in the quiet, dark room letting his eyes adjust. The air was stale but cool. Emil led the way to a table.
“What’ll you have?”
Emil held two fingers up and the bartender nodded. Emil flopped a five onto the bar and retrieved the freshly poured glasses from the bar. Sitting, Emil raised his glass.
“Here you are, my friend.”
Sammy took his beer and drank deeply. “Man, it was hot out there.”
“You get used to it.”
“Some things, you don’t want to get used to.”
They sat in the gloom without speaking. Sammy slid his glass back and forth. A popular song played on the jukebox. Emil tapped his fingers on the table, off time.
The room brightened as three men stormed into the tavern. They laughed at some joke and jostled up to the bar. The one they called Ed ordered drinks, too loudly. His friends laughed when he stumbled on his words.
Sammy and Emil shared a look. These were in the bunch who came to the field late in the day. Sammy downed his beer. He appeared ready to leave.
The men sat noisily. They all talked at once and were quiet only when drinking. Ed put down his glass loudly and smiled at Sammy and Emil.
“My friends! I didn’t see you come in. You were in the field with us.”
Emil nodded to him.
Ed continued, “Won’t you join us?” He signaled to the bar keep. “Billy! Serve our friends!”
Emil retrieved the beers and tried to pay but the bartender shook his head and pointed at Ed. Raising his glass, Emil nodded.
“The more the merrier, my friends. Drink up!”
Emil drank. Sammy stared at the table, not touching his glass.
Ed cocked his head. “What’s wrong with your friend? Hey, kid! You’re not thirsty? Have a drink with us!”
Emil touched Sammy’s arm. Sammy turned to Ed. The others quieted.
“Who shows up at three, for a day’s work?”
Ed grinned. “That is a good question, my friend. And it isn’t a habit for me, I assure you.” He flexed his biceps and turned to his friends, who agreed.
Sammy kept staring.
Ed did not want his mood to dampen. Then it dawned on him. He said something to his friends, who chuckled. Ed flipped his pay envelope onto the table and pushed it toward Sammy. He smiled.
“Is this the problem? Here. I’ll swap.”
Sammy wasn’t impressed. “It’s the same.”
“So, what’s your problem, then? I didn’t steal it.”
“You didn’t earn it.”
“Call it a gift. The man is generous. I bought you a beer.”
Sammy was silent.
Ed scoffed. “Are you in the habit of refusing gifts? Let’s celebrate. Cheers!”
Ed and his friends raised their glasses. Emil followed suit. Sammy looked at them and then down at his glass. He picked it up. The others cheered and drank.
Ed laughed and said, “And if I know Rodriguez, I’ll be working twice as hard tomorrow, no?”
That brought on more laughter. Sammy laughed in spite of himself. Even the bartender laughed.
Ed called to the barkeep, “You got food, Billy? Crackers, or something? Whaddya got?”
And so the party began.