By John Carr Walker
In the picture my mother sits on the Massey Ferguson Fifty tractor, tanned and slender, her black hair in two long ponytails. The background divides itself into three even levels: blanched dirt, green vineyard, pale sky. The photo dates from a summer between 1973 and 1976, after my parents moved to Caruthers from Fullerton but before I was born, and serves as hard evidence Mom used to work in the vineyards they owned.
Once, my father tells me, she worked with the boxing crew, filtering out dirt, leaves, and stems from the harvested raisins before the crop was shipped to Sun-Maid. The men were giving her a hard time, ignoring her, speaking Spanish among themselves and shooting her looks, laughing. Then a snake fell from the raisin bin onto the shaker screen. It hissed and fanged and shook its tail in imitation of a rattler, like gopher snakes will do when threatened. The men scattered, but my mother grabbed the snake with her bare hands and carried it past them, walking closer to them than necessary, before setting it free in the vineyards. They listened to her after that, Dad says. There’s a lift in his voice—ah, the good old days.
Mom tells a different kind of story: the time she got a tractor stuck in the sandy soil at the back of the vineyard, in the middle of harvest, when my father had neither time nor patience to deal with extra problems. She doesn’t need to describe the fury that flowed from him—I’m familiar.
The people who worked for him in the vineyards had a nickname for my father: Crazy David. Dad seemed to agree with them, describing himself as a bit of a wild man. I grew up hearing stories about what happened to grape pickers, pruners, and hired hands who crossed him, and I’d seen flashes of his temper myself. Once, in a screaming rage, I watched my father break a two-by-four board over his knee. Or was it a broom handle? I can see both images side by side in my memory, equally true expressions of his temper, what bad work—bad workers—made him do. Because he worked in our family vineyards, in rows that surrounded our house, where I liked to play whenever possible, I felt no separation between work and home, between my father’s workers and his family. I was often both. My father cut down an old shovel so I could go out working with him at four years old. The handle stood at my height, matched the length of my stride, and was balanced for my short swing. With its ground-down head I could move maybe half the dirt my father could, but I still tried my best to keep up with him, to stay in the light of his approval. I took pride in having this figure, this force, as my father, but my greatest fear was getting fired—that was my childhood bogeyman, the reoccurring nightmare that made me beg Mom to sleep on my bedroom floor, in the nightlight’s glow, where my wide eyes could see her. She seldom refused. Maybe she took as much comfort in my company as I did in hers.
My sister was born in June of 1981, a few months before I turned five-years-old, so my earliest cinematic memories are of her. I liked talking to her through the playpen walls, smashing my lips and nose against the nylon net when I ran out of things to say, to make her laugh or cry. I thought I knew what she wanted. For years I did most of the talking for her. I could almost see myself through her eyes the way I wanted to be seen: experienced, knowledgeable, in control, with the same kind of authority in the house and on the vineyard as Mom and Dad. I wanted to teach her everything I knew and watch her do it to perfection.
Blanched dirt reflected sun into our eyes, through our skin. Heat turned to pressure, at first a weight on our bodies, then headaches and cramped muscles throbbing from the inside out.
MY FATHER TOOK the whole family suckering the spring I was eleven, my sister six. It’s the only time I remember all of us working in the vineyards together. It might have been my sister’s first time out working. I don’t know how he got Mom to agree to vineyard work after so long, unless they were trying to make new memories now that the family was complete—more than likely Mom didn't have a choice. Dad was trying to teach us a lesson about work ethic—Dad always said he was teaching work ethic, though I can say now the only thing I learned from him about work was do things his way, or else.
To sucker means clearing the vines of extra growth. Suckers were benign in and of themselves, but they demanded a share of the irrigation water, and over time would weaken the grapevine if allowed to grow. Dad had been suckering by himself all week, driving the Massey-Ferguson Fifty tractor up and down every other vineyard middle, low-range, first-gear, half-throttle, slow enough he could scan the rows to his left and right for suckers from his perch on the pan seat. When he spied a sucker—it could be a green shoot curling from a vine’s trunk or a knob of dead wood growing like a tumor from the crown—he put the tractor in neutral, got his shovel or his saw from the box suspended on the three-point lift, and stabbed or cut the sucker away. He put the excised growths in the box, to be piled and burned later. The slow drive resumed. Dad liked the solitude of such work, the way our hundred acre vineyards insulated him from the world’s problems, but he hated working slowly. Dad liked to streamline—suckering to make a cleaner, healthier vineyard appealed to his love of investment—but felt the hours on the tractor as it crept along were wasted. Improving the vineyards satisfied a primal urge in him, I think, but he also had better things to do. He wanted to teach his children about work ethic, and he wanted this job done immediately, so he traded working alone for conscripted workers.
The Saturday we all went suckering, Dad changed out the box on the three-point lift for a flatbed trailer towed behind the tractor. The trailer offered more than four times the space, suggesting the kind of progress Dad expected to make with four times the work force. The morning waned and the shade cast by the vines retreated into the berms. Blanched dirt reflected sun into our eyes, through our skin. Heat turned to pressure, at first a weight on our bodies, then headaches and cramped muscles throbbing from the inside out. My mother, sister, and I followed the trailer on foot, up and down every middle, using our shovels like walking sticks—we threw the blades out before us, then passed the curls of topsoil peeled from the ground. My sister used my old shovel, the one with the shortened handle and ground-down head; I’d recently graduated to a new, full-sized shovel, and took every opportunity to tell her what to do, how to do it. Stay alert for suckers. Really look at every vine. Blink through the sweat when necessary, but keep your eyes open. When you spot a green shoot growing on a trunk, stab it away, like this, with a sharp downward thrust.
Three, four times every middle, Dad stopped and climbed off the tractor to cut away knobs of excess wood with his pruning saw. I knew to work harder then, or to try and look like it, sometimes ducking under the vines if I spotted a sucker in the next row, to show Dad I was a good worker, that I had the right work ethic. I also wanted to be my sister’s best example. She needed to learn this family survival technique. Dad judged us as he worked, scanning the vines we’d already walked past, and if he saw a sucker we missed, watch out—if his jaw sets, that’s a lit fuse.
I did not pay attention to my mother, her work or her mood, but I’m thinking of Mom now. I imagine her keeping a six-year-old safe from a moving tractor, sharp tools, and managing a self-absorbed son, all while trying to make her boss-husband happy with her work. I recently asked what she remembered about suckering. She told me she almost killed a rabbit taking off a sucker. She thrust her shovel downward along the vine and as the blade separated the Johnson grass that grew wild on the berm it revealed a young cottontail. Frozen with fear, the baby rabbit’s head was pulled in close to its round body, nose almost touching steel, visibly shaking under its downy gray fur. I’m sure she did not tell my sister to look—that was one of our principle pleasures at the time, pointing and telling her to look at the quail, the coyote, the red-tailed hawk gliding overhead—not this time, not while suckering. Mom told me her work became tentative after that, too slow, and that’s why Dad got angry.
She doesn’t remember what I remember. As I came around the corner of the trailer, hurrying to stay in my father’s good graces, I ran into the saw he carried in hand, on his way to sucker the next gnarled vine. The teeth took a bite out of my ear. A sudden sting, then a second of heat. I grabbed the torn skin, blood greased my fingers, and at the sight of red felt the sting deeper. My mother dropped her shovel and knelt beside me, pushing away my wetted hair to see the wound for herself.
My boss-father set his jaw, bared his teeth. You’re fired! he said.
Walking back to the house, I held my shirt wadded against my ear to stanch the flow of blood. I cried from the pain. And from the cut. From the shame of leaving work wounded. My sister cried because I was crying. Our mother tried her best to comfort us. Your dad’s angry now, she said, but we’re only fired from suckering—we’re still a family, believe me.
John Carr Walker is the author of the story collection Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014). Recently, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, Gimmick, Shantih, Gravel, Hippocampus, Five:2:One, The Toasted Cheese, Inlandia, Split Lip, and The Collagist. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley, he now lives in Oregon.