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fl fl fl DoñaErmelindaCatchesaRide The year she turned twelve, Ermelinda Jiménez de Suárez got her first job. It was mopping the tile floors in a huge house with china in a cabinet and a dinner table that seated twenty. Jilgueros hung in cages in every room. In the breeze that came through potted plants on the balcony, those birds let go a song that hurt your ears, it was so fierce. It rebounded off the damp tiles. It rolled back and forth, room to room, and it was beautiful—Michoacán was famous for its jilgueros!—but she left every afternoon with a headache. So one afternoon seventy years later, Ermelinda recalls her very first job and looks out the windshield at where the Highline Canal snakes through sagebrush, half a mile off. A hawk glides. She is remembering. When she got here, the crowded, panicky discomfort she had felt on that first job vanished—overrun by weeks, and then years, of pruning and thinning and picking under Columbia Plateau skies. But the memory of her first job holds on like a cocklebur. Probably, by now, it represents her feelings about where she grew up, a childhood caught—and maybe no longer expressible—between those birds and that tile floor. Ermelinda looks around. She’s seen all this before. The sunlight slant, the stacks of empty pallets, the creaking of conveyor belts and Canada geese, everything says harvest time. Life in this town takes on a trance-like detachment. People enter that state of mind, built of repetition and sleeplessness, that preys on those who work twelve-hour shifts. They go home to a cabin or a trailer, door hanging crooked over cinder-block front step, mattress on the floor, phone numbers penciled on the wall. Random thoughts show up, dangling an attractive bit of wisdom just out of reach, and before long, supervisors tell each other the work crew is getting spacey. In other words, this time of year will bend your mind like a stick in water. Even if you are, like Ermelinda, ten years retired from the freezer Doña Ermelinda Catches a Ride 13 plant, you get to thinking that somewhere else, out there in all that cobwebby time, the newlywed you is blinking and washing Sunday dinner dishes. Blinking at a dish towel. Remember the freshly caught trout a brother-in-law brought over for dinner? How was a person supposed to know you had to cut the insides out? Then the landlord howling at your screen door, all gray hair and neck veins, not to pour grease down the sink, and the brother-in-law drunk sending a money order home pa’ mantener—he rolled his eyes—a la vieja y al sancho. The brother-in-law with his hand on your leg under the table. In other words, if you are Ermelinda, you sometimes get swarmed over. You can get so delayed by the bits of resistance people call el norte—or Out West, depending on what they leave behind—that suddenly it is years later. You’re catching a ride out to your granddaughter’s house to babysit. When it all overtakes you, for a moment—the seventy years, the birdcages, the tile floor—you flinch, look down a gravel road, fold your hands in your lap, and clear your throat. Take the next left, you say. The man behind the wheel smiles at you. Then we go straight— you continue, deadpan—until a dog comes out. And he cracks up. Now if you’re the guy driving—and I’m the guy driving, who else?—you turn left, pass between a tar-patch smell and a speed bump, and you’re there. Another parquiadero in another border town a thousand miles north of where the border was two generations ago. That is how Pera’s grandmother and I pull in with a week’s worth of bakery goods donated by Fred Meyer. And Carmen and Elida, Balbina and Marbella—putting out tomato plants or walking the grandkids—walk up and pluck bread from our car trunk. Plus a young gabo with shirt off and a baby over one bony shoulder. A not-so-young gabo heaves out of a lawn chair, takes a loaf, and says, much obliged. Doña Ermelinda herself walks off with a smile and a sack of bran muffins. Think of it. After a hundred years of researching hybrids and fertilizers , the country produces...


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