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Authors: Gary Paulsen

The Beet Fields

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Again Lynette was there—a clear picture. The boy nodded. He'd seen her exactly twice, she was at least a year older than he was and yet he could not stop thinking about her. “When do I start?”

By this time the Mexicans were at the end of the driveway and he thought to run after them and say goodbye but he stopped, thinking of Lynette, and then they turned the corner onto the road, walking all in white to the next job, and were gone and he did not see them again and would never in his life see them again. He walked with Bill back into the yard and it was in this way he came to work a steady job and to fall in love for the first time.

ALSO BY GARY PAULSEN

Alida's Song
The Boy Who Owned the School
The Brian Books:
The River, Brians Winter and
Brian's Return
Canyons
The Car
The Cookcamp
The Crossing
Dogsong
Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods
Harris and Me
Hatchet
The Haymeadow
The Island
The Monument
My Life in Dog Years
Nightjohn
The Night the White Deer Died
Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers
Sarny: A Life Remembered
The Schemoff Discoveries
Soldiers Heart
The Transall Saga
The Tucket Adventures, Books One through Five
The Voyage of the Frog
The Winter Room
Picture books, illustrated by Ruth Wright Paulsen:
Canoe Days
and
Dogteam

This one's for Gito

AUTHOR'S NOTE

I have been telling stories for many years, mining my life for the ore that makes each piece of fiction, as most writers mine their lives for material to make stories come to life and dance.

Because of that, small portions of this book appeared in softer forms, shadowed and sketched and changed into gentler fiction, over twenty years ago. But here it is now, as real as I can write it, and as real as I can remember it happening. It is strange what one remembers:

Light through a dusty little trailer window, the smell of an unfiltered cigarette, the shine of metal on a hoe working in a beet field, the sweat on a forearm, the pop of a tractor motor, the soft hair at a farm girl's temples as she pays for a ride at the fair—all of these came to me when I started to work on this book, all these true things came and let me see more things honestly, to help me lift those parts of stories back out of fiction and into the real story of what happened in that summer of the beet fields.…

Shee gave me of the Tree, and I did eate.

JOHN MILTON,
Paradise Lost

THE BOY'S LIFE TRULY BEGAN
when he was sixteen years old, sleeping in the grubby apartment, in his small room, on the couch that folded out into a bed.

He was only half awake, fighting sleep: half dreaming, half knowing. His mother was there beside him.

She had come to his bed many times drunk, to sleep, as she had slept with him when he was a small boy during the war, when his father was away in the army. She was the mother and he was the boy and they lived alone. All his life she had fallen asleep hear him, two, three nights a week,
and he would either slide to the side away from her or ease out onto the floor and pull a blanket down to sleep there while she passed out, mumbling drunkenly about his father. Always about the father.

But tonight, even half dreaming, he knew something was different, wrong, about her need for him, and he rolled and pushed and stood away in lonely horror while she lay there moaning, half conscious, the drunk smell of her filling his shabby room, dark except for the light from a streetlamp a block away.

And he ran.…

ONE

T
HE NORTH DAKOTA SUN CAME UP LATE
.

They were already in the beet fields and had taken up their hoes with the handles cut off so they could not be leaned upon to rest; had already eaten cold beans and slices of week-old bread from the metal pie pans nailed to the table to be hosed off between shifts of eaters; had already filled themselves on rusty water from the two-handled milk cans on the wagon at the end of the field; had already peed and taken a dump and scratched and spit and splashed cold water in their faces to drip down their necks.

Had done all of these after sleeping the short
night on feed sacks in sleeping sheds near the barn; after they had come in to a new day,
then
the sun came up.

The Mexicans always outworked him.

They spread out at the south end of the sugar-beet fields and began to work, and the Mexicans always outworked him. At first he tried to understand how that could be. It was all so simple. They were to walk down the rows of beets and remove every other beet. The farmers—he always thought of them as the farmers—planted more seeds than they needed, to ensure proper germination, and the seeds all came up and had to be thinned to allow the beets to grow properly.

So they worked down the rows, cutting left and right, taking a beet, leaving a beet, and it did not seem possible that one person could do it that much faster than another, but always the Mexican men and women, and even children, outworked him. Even when he worked hard, hacked back and forth without looking, worked in a frenzy until his hands bled on the handle, he could not keep up. Their white shirts always drifted ahead of him, farther and farther out like white birds flying low,
until they were so far ahead they were spots and then nothing.

Rows of beets a mile long. Left and right for a mile and then turn and start back, halfway up to meet the Mexicans coming back.

Eleven dollars an acre. Four rows to the acre, a half acre a day, all day the hoes cutting, left and right, the rows never ending, and even trying to catch up with the Mexicans was not enough to stop the boredom, nothing to stop the awful boredom of the beets.

The sun was hot when it came up late. There was no early-morning coolness, no relief. An early heat came with the first edge of the sun and by the time the sun was full up, he was cooking and looking for some relief. He tried hoeing with his left hand low, then his right hand, then leaning forward more, then less, but nothing helped. It was hot, getting hotter, and he straightened and spit and resettled the straw hat he had bought in Grafton. It had a piece of green plastic in the brim that looked cool but wasn't. He had bought the hat because all the Mexicans had them and he wanted to look like them, blend in with them in the field even though they were a rich dark color and he
looked like white paper burned around the edges. But the hat did not seem to fit right and he kept readjusting it to get the sweatband broken in. It was the same with his hands. They did not break in. He had been working three days now, but blisters had rebroken and left pink skin that opened and bled. He bought leather gloves from the farmer who sold them the hoes. The farmer sold them hoes for three dollars and gloves for another two dollars and they had to pay a dollar a day for a sandwich and he had worked three days and had only hoed an acre. Not counting the hat, which he'd bought with money he'd found in his pockets when he ran, he had now earned eleven dollars, with three taken out for the hoe and three for sandwiches and two for the gloves and four and a half for three dinners, and fifty cents a night for three nights. After three days' work, he owed the farmer three dollars.

He did the math while he worked.

“I pay eleven dollars an acre,” the farmer had told him. “You can hoe an acre a day easy—eleven dollars a day.”

When he'd started hoeing he dreamt of wealth, did the math constantly until the numbers filled his mind. Eleven dollars an acre, an acre a day; after
ten days a hundred and ten dollars, twenty days the almost-unheard-of sum of two hundred and twenty dollars. More than a man made per month working in a factory for a dollar an hour—aiid he was only sixteen. Rich. He would be rich.

But after the first day when his back would not straighten and his hands would not uncurl from the hoe handle and his blisters were bleeding, after all that and two-fifty for food, and three for the hoe, and fifty cents
for the lodging, not
to mention the hat and gloves,
only a third of an
acre lhad been thinned that first day,
and he knew
he would not get rich, would never be rich. By the second day he was no longer even sad about not being rich and laughed with the Mexicans who would also never be rich but who smiled and laughed all the time while they worked. Now, on the fourth day, gloved, he just hoed.

He worked hard, his head down, the hoe snaking left and., right. An hour could have passed, a minute, a day, a year. He did not look up, kept working until it seamed it should be time for a break, and he stood and looked across the field to the north where the Mexicans were small white dots, moving farther ahead as lie watched.

“Shit.” Swearing helped. His back ached and it wasn't yet midday and he was thirsty, his tongue stuck to the sides of his mouth with the dryness, but the milk cans of water in the old pickup were a half mile in back of him and he didn't want to take the time to walk back for a drink. They would bring water at midday along with the dry sandwiches, when the sun was nearly overhead. Another hour to go. “Shit.”

Before bending back to the hoe—the “fuuwaucking hoe,” as the old Mexican who led the group called it—he looked around the field, closely first at individual beet plants, then out until they blurred in green, and then farther out, around and out and up, in all directions. It was like standing in the center of an enormous bowl that went green to the sky and then yellow blue into the gold-hot sun, the color mixing with the heat in some way to press down on him, pressing, pushing, bending, driving him back to the hoe.

He cut left and right, cut and cut, the beet plants flipping off the shiny blade of the hoe, working again without looking up, giving himself to the beets until his back was hot with the sun overhead and he heard the grinding of a motor
coming along the side of the field, and he looked up to see the farmer's wife bringing food.

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