Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Switch by Elmore Leonard (Bantam Books 1978)

"Yeah, he's all right," Louis said. "I'm waiting there about two weeks in Brownsville, McAllen, finally I said fuck-it, I'm going home. But by then I didn't have any money for gas. So I said okay, I'll go out and pick melons for a few days, maybe a week. See, the only reason I was down there I was fucking desperate and this grass was gonna make it, get me a stake. So I sign up at a place, Stanzik Farms, go out and start picking and they call a strike. Actually the strike was going on and I was hired like as a scab, buck sixty an hour. We were out in the fields and the ones on strike were up on the road forming a picket line and this Chicano girl with the union would yell at us through a bullhorn. She'd yell like, 'Vengase! Para respecto, hombres!' 'Come on, for your self-respect.' There'd be police cars there, these hotshot troopers with their sunglasses, chewing gum. Never smile. I think they teach them that at the academy. You're out there, never smile, trooper, show you're a human being, man. Some company people, a foreman, came by there in a pickup truck. Then this Chicano girl, Helen Mendez"--Louis grinned, shaking his head-- "she was something, she'd start calling the names of people she knew out in the field, asking where their dignity was, using that word, dignity, and their respect for justice. She'd say, 'Look at your friends here on the picket line, going hungry for the sake of a just wage.' You should've heard her; she was an actress. And pretty soon some of the pickers they'd be looking at each other, and you'd see them take the sacks off their shoulder and come out of the field."

"And you were one of them," Mickey said.

"And you were one of them," Mickey said.

"Well, I wasn't making all that much and my goddamn back was killing me, that stoop work, Jesus-- so I thought, Well, join the union. They looked like they were having a better time than we were."

"They sent you to prison for striking?"

"No, not for striking," Louis said. "See, they started running the company pickup truck up and down the road past the strikers, giving us a lot of dust and kicking up gravel. Then when the girl, Helen Mendez, would start calling names over the bullhorn, the pickup truck started playing music-- see, the radio was hooked up to a speaker on the roof of the truck--blaring it out so nobody'd be able to hear her yelling their names. I remember, I even remember one of the songs was Falling Leaves, Christ, Roger Williams playing it. And Who Can I Turn To. Helen Mendez'd yell at the truck, 'Hey, you squares, get XECR Reynosa!' You want me to light another one?"

Mickey blinked. "I think I can feel it now."

"Get up and walk you'll find out."

"I'm too comfortable."

"We'd sit out there on the line, this trooper with his ranger hat on'd come along make us get up and stand so many feet apart and so many feet from the edge of the field. We'd say, 'What the fuck do you care if we sit down?' He'd give us this mean squinty no-shit look and point his stick and say something about hauling our ass in if we gave him any mouth. He didn't say nothing to the Stanzik foreman who'd come by in the pickup seeing if he could make us jump back out of the way. I remember the radio was playing Okie from Muskogee--you remember it?"

"Sure," Mickey said. "Merle Haggard."

"How come you know it?"

"I've got a radio too," Mickey said. "I'm not bragging, but we've got about five and only one of them, the one in the kitchen, works."

"I'll fix 'em for you," Louis said. "I was in the Navy. I was a Radioman Third."

"And a melon-picker for half a day," Mickey said.

"Not even that," Louis said. "This truck comes along playing Okie from Muskogee blaring out and some of the strikers they'd hold their signs out in the road and raise them as the truck skinned by. So the foreman got pissed-off, he decided to skin us a little closer, make us jump, and the truck hit this old man, threw him about thirty feet down the road and into the ditch. I saw it, I saw the truck swerve at the man deliberately. Everybody ran over to where he was laying there with his broken leg. The trooper came over, taking his leather book out, and you know what he did?"

"What?" Mickey said.

"He gave the old man laying there a ticket for obstructing traffic."

Mickey thought of the security girl with acne at Saks Fifth Avenue.

"I asked one of the strikers if I could use his car to go into town," Louis said. "I had to get out of there, go someplace maybe have a drink. He said sure, for a dollar. I got in the car, started up the road and there was the foreman standing beside his pickup truck with the door open. I think it was the way he was standing, hand on his hip watching, not giving a shit, you know? I gunned the car at him. I just wanted to make him jump, the son of a bitch, but I cut it too close, took his door off and broke both his legs."

"God," Mickey said. "What happened?"

"Everybody cheered," Louis said. "I was arrested, charged with attempted murder, plea-bargained it down to felonious assault and got two to five in Huntsville. Served thirty months, same amount of time I was in the Navy, and I'll tell you something. Even being at Norfolk, Virginia, I liked the Navy a little better."

1 comment:

Darren said...

pages 97-98

A longish excerpt from a short, but perfectly formed, crime novel.