Scrub Defined

by Kerri Dieffenwierth
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I.

I learned about the word “migrant” from a pinkish redneck in a plaid shirt.

“You know what we’re going find out here don’t you, little girlie,” he said partly to me and partly to the scrub palmetto he motioned to with a burly freckled arm. He had stumpy stained nicotine teeth and curly bristly hair, like a wild boar. He was there with his bushwhacker to clear our property. I was brought along for company, but I liked the country, so I didn’t mind. I was thirteen.

“We’re going find us some black Hefty bags of migrant bodies, that’s what. They get themselves in knife fights after a night of drinking and settle it on their own. No law, ’cause they’re illegals and illegals don’t call the law. You know what that means girlie, an illegal?”

What I knew is that my stepdad should’ve never left me standing next to this scary man and his scary stories. My stepfather said he had to run over to Nelson’s Country Store to use the phone or something. And now I was stuck. Just me, big ugly Boar Man, chipped yellow metal, and our tangled land.

“No, what’s an illegal?” I guessed it might be a farmworker, like the families who lived down the road in narrow rows of concrete buildings, but I kept quiet. I might be young, but at least I have some smarts. My mother likes to tell people I’m like a cat. “I could throw her off a roof and she’d land on her feet.” Best thing to do is sneak some steps back when he’s not looking and get myself a buffer. And make polite conversation. If he gets to talking he can’t get to thinking or scheming.

“Girlie, it’s an intruder, a spic who’s left his poor excuse for a country and come sneaking over to the U S of A. They’ll work like dogs but use up our jobs just the same. Then they birth a ton of spic kids to crowd our schools and make us foot the bill.”

My plan wasn’t working. The more Boar went on, the redder he got. I didn’t know why he was so personally mad, but I felt like he wanted to keep talking.

“How many bags have you found, sir?”

“Well, now, Girlie, I’ve found me quite a handful.” He laughed, but his big belly didn’t shake an ounce—this was no mall Santa.

I pictured him loosening a knot at the top of one of those bags and peering inside. I pictured sad dark headed families with machetes in their hands walking across our land, whacking aside the tall weeds, looking for a family member. I’d never see a large trash bag the same again. I knew what it would say. I could hear it talk:

My name is Hefty, but I don’t want you calling me that. They say my name means big and strong. Powerful. Muscular. But let me tell you the truth. I hide dirt. Not just dirt. Sin. And the worst of that sin—I hide death. Dead food, dead animals, dead children. And it ain’t all trash. It’s fucking pieces of beauty thrown away. Buried. In low lazy graves. Or in landfills. Some of it gets found. But most of the beauty is for me and my kin to know only. I’m what you hear thunk against the grimy metal sides of the garbage truck while your still-alive head is waiting for your clock radio to go off. I’m always black. Black as oil. There’s no beauty in me and there shouldn’t be.

Up the road, I saw the silver grill face of my stepfather’s truck approaching. Boar took a step toward me and leaned his giant ox head over. “Yeah, girlie, they have their own laws, but so do we.”

Boar crossed his club arms to his chest, made a grumble back in his throat, and spit brown liquid that oozed too close to my favorite red sneakers. His fat purplish tongue probed his crackled bottom lip like a diseased slug.

I wanted to throw salt on it.

I ran to meet my stepdad and stayed in the truck the rest of the time, sorting and organizing the glove compartment and keeping my head down. It took a few hours for Boar to mow the scrub. Don made us stay to make sure the job was done right and then he paid the man in cash and I never saw him again.

II.

Three years trickled past. We memorized the coral snake rhyme, “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow; Red touches black, friend of Jack.”

Of course, if you saw a snake with stripes trying to get into the garage, you didn’t stand there coordinating colors and reciting poetry. You grabbed a shovel and chopped it its head clean off and hosed its brown blood from the concrete.

I tried to convince myself to respect alligators and water moccasins, to honor them like a Seminole Indian would. Pretending to be an Indian was my favorite afterschool game. It was a solitary one, but that worked out since I always played the role of a single scout. I rode Bonnie Anne, our bay mare, bareback along miles of irrigation canals. The banks were steep enough to keep the gators from climbing up, so I didn’t have to look down much. I could keep my eyes out for possible ambushes.

Scouting consumed whole afternoons. Since I never saw humans or dogs or houses or roads or anything with wheels, I could focus on pretending to search for dinner. The salty sweat from Bonnie Anne’s back caked the insides of my thighs and made any cuts or scrapes sting. The painful prickle sensation made me feel authentically Indian, but white girls still grip horses with white girl legs. Bonnie Anne never cared—she flattened tall grass into the way home.

III.
Florida scrub is just waiting for you to turn away, to get sluggish. It’ll see to it that you don’t get home for meatloaf, the kind your Indiana grandmother taught your mother to shape like a baby football, while you waded in the Midwest lake, in water that tasted clean like it didn’t hold anything that could eat you. Mom’s got the ketchup topping just right. It’s cooled and gelled and she serves the milk extra cold with one ice cube dropped in at the last minute. You still like to place your glass in the hat position at the top of the plate, like you did when you were little. It gives you order.

You always seem to be waiting for good to come out of this soil. You can’t pick your head up for watching it. An evil magnet it is, so long away from the ocean. It’s not always a flat blanket of beach for tourists to stoop for bits of broken shells to glue on cheap mirrors. Shells they won’t bother to learn the names of—conversation starters only in places they wait to warm themselves. Boca Raton. Ft. Lauderdale. Sanibel Island. And oh, those egrets. And what about the soft rippled pelican throats that vibrated with the shape of a doomed fish. Stories to last them through those harsh winters, until they can get back to the sand and stoop again.

IV.
If my chin was up not down, I’d have missed the crinkly corner of the trash bag, wouldn’t have slid down Bonnie Anne’s back, and pulled on that bag like a swindly fixed tug of war. Team One: Me. Almost 14. Past the point of a training bra, but not interested in the tongues of boys stroking my anything. Willing to tempt the damp musty fringes of Everglades soil on any regular-get-through-this-lonesome-adolescence day.

Team Two: Black plastic, and the molecules of DNA leftover from whoever deposited it there. And the appearance of maggots: short golden clips of curling fat trying to crawl out of something. I grabbed Bonnie Anne’s mane and swung my body on her back and aimed us to meatloaf. I kicked welts into her sides to get the kind of hustle I needed, the kind that brought, the constant whoosh of air across my body that would wash the bag away.

About those alligators: never mind trying to be fair and sharing the same patch of soil or water like we were earth partners or something. You win, gators and mocs, because what I really felt about you was hot skin panic, especially when I watched my stepdad shoot a five foot water moccasin in an irrigation ditch and it kept coming at him with its giant thumb head and wouldn’t die, not until Don’s wrist quivered Vietnam, not until its fat-tubed skin soaked up four bullets. I kept that afternoon quiet in my head for a long time.

I hate ditches.

V.
Night wasn’t my favorite time. Night. There you are, lying under a comforter in the dark and you’re thinking about scales and fur and stories you’ve heard, and you’re trying to sort the buzzes and chirps and hums and scrapes outside your window into those you know and those you don’t. You’re always finding some kind of creature crawling or scurrying in the house, and you stay awake trying to figure out where the holes are, how they’re getting inside.

I wondered if the children of the migrant workers were under their covers doing the same worrying. I thought more about them now. Thought about their hard lives. You could see the duct tape peeling off their screens from the road. Plus, they had to watch out for angry Boars.

We tried to make a home in our new prefabricated two-story house with redwood stain. We were one of the first families to dwell in the Tierra Del Rey subdivision and the only family to have a home delivered in pieces. The new development loomed from the highway because a hundred truckloads of fill dirt created huge hills that were planted with cabbage palms and hardy shrubs. People notice hills in Florida.

A few years later, while riding Jeff Nelson’s all-terrain vehicle down the side of one of the hills, I lost control and rammed my knuckles into one of those palm trees they planted so people would look up and be impressed and maybe buy a plot. If you’ve ever thought the bark of a cabbage palm was smooth, you should know that the hairy wooden bristles rip skin wide open.

Tierra Del Rey. “Land of the King,” but it makes you wonder which king. A Spanish ruler who funded exploration? An Indian chief whose descendants toughened their heels in the scrub way before anyone else’s white toes touched it? Was there a queen?

When I rode Bonnie Anne across hundreds of acres of empty scrub, I used to picture peachy pale people in padded chairs sitting back and drinking coffee and deciding nifty names for the neatly squared divisions of land around us. Being early in the land of the king was lonely—no neighbors for two years. Finally, a couple of rooftops emerged nearby, one within yelling range, one within shotgun range. Most of our neighbors liked to be left alone.

Except for a square horse paddock in the back, our land wasn’t fenced. Our house sat on a small hill and the side yard gleamed emerald since it was a drainage field for the septic tank. Maybe our little spread looked welcoming, because every now and then, farmworkers in beat up vehicles would stop and get out and walk a path to our front door. Only strangers came to the front door, so when the doorbell rang, it made us jumpy. My mother opened our paneled door—which she painted Chinese Red for good luck—to “Hola” and smiles and buckets and gestures toward the water hose.

“Sure, sure, go ahead,” she said, nodding, then closing the door quickly and turning the deadbolt. I remember feeling proud that my family could be nice if it wanted to—our well water wasn’t even that great, it tinged your hair red because of all the rust and minerals.

But then, if the farmworkers dawdled or got curious and started walking around the back of the house or looking in a window, my mother would grab a rifle off the piano nobody played, stomp upstairs, pop out a screen, and shoot into the sky. I’d look out and see containers flying and buckets sloshing while women and men and sometimes children scurried and screamed and ran to their car. My mother was a vicious Statue of Liberty; she raised a .22 instead of a beacon of light.

Was my mother just nervous? Protective? Scared? Looking back, I remember that there was a lot of mystery about our years in Tierra Del Rey. I can understand why we had a lot of pets just disappear—we lived on land that had been wild. But did I imagine helicopters with spotlights circling over our farm while I slept? Or detectives at the front door, scribbling notes in spiral pads? We heard rumors about neighbors who dealt in drugs, who served prison terms years later, but the details and the conversations I overheard were just like the water in the canals: murky.

VI.
The migrant workers stayed a mile south of us in tomato and pepper seasons. Their apartments looked like a long abandoned row of attached motel rooms in need of renovation. They were partly shielded from the highway by a row of tall, dark Australian pines that always whistled in the wind if you listened. If our truck windows were open, I usually noticed a particular smell. Once, I asked my stepdad about it as we passed by.

“That smell? That’s pork and beans. Farmworkers eat pork and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They love it. It’s all they eat.”

I never questioned it, but then smelled the same thing eight years later on my honeymoon in Vermont. “Someone’s having pork and beans tonight,” I said to my handsome groom in the front seat of our rental car as we passed a ski cabin.

“Uh, honey, that’s wood smoke. Why in the world would you think it’s pork and beans?”

VII.
Ricardo Canales asked me to the senior prom. He always saved me a seat on the 5:15 a.m. bus to high school. We only picked up about fifteen kids on the way. Ricardo was the nicest. Why? Because he was kind and attentive and smiley in the way boys are when they’ve got a crush and the girl actually talks to them. We could talk about anything from weather to what made kids popular.

“I don’t want a boyfriend, my horse is my boyfriend,” I’d warn him. I didn’t want him to crush on me too much and ruin everything. Some boys just need a tender hint that you aren’t interested. But if they can keep their distance, you can be an excellent friend.

I never flinched when the bus hit a bump and our arms touched. Sometimes I’d even lean into him on purpose since he felt like comfort.

I never knew if Ricardo came from a migrant family. I do know that Ricardo remained the only good thing about school mornings. In order to make it to the bus by 5:15, I had to wake up at 4:20 and walk across our property in the dark to our barn to feed and water the horses. After the movie Halloween came out, the trail between the house and barn became a gauntlet of terror. I pictured a man in a white facemask jumping out at me. Every damn morning. And when I turned on the barn light, at least one rat always dropped from the rafters in surprise.

When I said I would go to prom with Ricardo, I created a pop-whirl of loud language in our kitchen.

“Why did you say yes? Why would you tell that boy yes?” My mother and stepdad started their quizzical accusations, but I think they realized they didn’t want any discriminating words hanging in the air where I would snatch them up to use against them later. I had a sharp tongue from years of soaking up sharp words. I rarely cared about consequences since fairness, since regular, since normal didn’t decide to live with us anyway.

“I said yes because he was the first one to ask me and because his eyes were so sad when he asked, like I’d never say yes to him in a hundred million years.”

It’s true that Ricardo’s whole body glowed when I said I’d be his prom date.

He showed up against the redwood stain in a white tux with white ruffles coming out of his sleeves. Mother took a few photos of us standing in the living room, our dress shoes clicking on the Mexican tile that had chicken and dog tracks on it from when it was laid in the sun to dry far away and critters ran across it. When my sister and I unpacked the tile squares from cardboard boxes years before, we had searched excitedly, hoping there’d be some with prints. The salesman said animal tracks on Mexican tile meant your house was lucky. We could always use some extra luck.

Ricardo picked me up in a whale of a white car that he borrowed and probably washed and waxed and vacuumed all day. I wore a tangerine colored high collared dress with lace and a headpiece of rainbow silk flowers with satin ribbons trailing down my back. I tucked my arm into Ricardo’s and smiled for the camera: sweet Woodstock-stoned-on-innocence paired with happy-chocolate-Labrador-puppy-guy.

We had dinner in pretentious Palm Beach where they gave us too much silverware but not enough food. But that’s where the other couples went and Ricardo wanted to take me there, too. I would have been fine to eat at Fran’s Fried Chicken with a side order of hush puppies. But I pretended to love breaded crab cake and pink sauce, for Ricardo’s sake.

He got his glossy white rental shoes to move in rhythm to KC and the Sunshine Band. Ricardo showed them how to “Get Down Tonight” across the grid lines of parquet floor in the ballroom of the famous oceanfront Breakers Hotel.

When I recall the skanky bathroom gossip about rented hotel rooms, STD’s, and fake ID’s, I’m grateful for my perfect prom night with Ricardo.

After the dance, we drove to the beach and sat in damp gray sand and talked about what we wanted from life. We were unsure about the future. The green waves in front of us were more decisive. Water died away and newborn waves crashed to shore in continuous curls of foam and crash, foam and crash.

For minutes. For hours. Building and flattening, as it does, whether watched or not. Better than wild scrub mowed into ground. Like watching fire.

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