After we ate the freshly cooked tortillas and beans for breakfast, I helped Roberto wash the dishes in the aluminum tub, which Mama also used for bathing Torito, Ruben, and Rorra, and for washing clothes. And while Mama mended Papa's shirt, he drove in our Carcachita to the nearest gas station to fill the gallon bottle with drinking water and to get more kerosene for the stove. When Papa returned, he smoked another cigarette, took two aspirin, and went to bed. Trampita and I sat on the mattress and played guessing games and then listened to Roberto's ghost stories. Mama told us to be very quiet because Papa was not feeling well. "Remember, he does not like noise," she said.
For the next few days it rained off and on. By Friday, when the sun finally came out, Papa's aspirin bottle was empty and a pile of cigarette butts covered the floor by his side of the bed.
Like an alarm clock, the honking of the horn woke me with a start Saturday morning. It was the contratista, the labor contractor, who drove around in his beat-up red Ford truck, honking the horn to let us know that the cotton was dry and ready to pick. Leaning on the horn, and trying to avoid the potholes full of water, he drove up and down the muddy paths, slow as a snail, between rows and rows of perfectly aligned one-room cabins. After finishing the round, which took about 20 minutes, he started again just in case some had fallen back asleep or had not heard him the first time.
On days when I was not in school, the honking of the horn was for me like the final bell on the last day of school. It meant I had to go to work. But for Papa, who usually hated any kind of noise, this loud sound was a tonic. It perked him up.
By the time the contratista finished the second round, Mama had made the lunches and Papa was warming up the Carcachita. We loaded the sacks, climbed in, and lined up the car behind the contratista's red pickup truck, waiting for him to lead us to the cotton field that was to be picked. Loaded with workers who did not own cars, the pickup sluggishly pulled out, followed by the caravan of old battered cars and trucks.
After driving for about five miles, the contratista pulled over to the side of the road and motioned us to park behind him. He got out and pointed to the cotton field. It stretched from the shoulder of the road as far as the eye could see. Papa, Mama, Roberto, and I got out of the car. Trampita stayed behind to take care of Torito, Ruben, and Rorra. We followed Papa, who walked over to the cotton plants to get a closer look. The other pickers did the same. Papa said it was a good crop.
The plants were about 3 feet tall, and partially hidden between their dry brown leaves were many cotton bolls. A few smaller plants had yellow and red flowers and green bulbs that looked like small avocados. Papa explained that the flowers would close and form hard green bulbs which, in turn, would open to become cotton bolls. "But remember," he said firmly, "cotton bolls are like roses. They are pretty but they can hurt you."
"Yes, I know; the shell is like a cat's claw," I answered, remembering the numerous scratches I had gotten on my hands and wrists the year before.
After feeling the cotton to make sure it was completely dry, the contratista told us to start working. All the pickers, except me, had their own sacks and their own rows to harvest. I went a few yards ahead of Mama and picked cotton from her row and piled it on the ground. When she reached the pile, she picked it up and put it in her sack. I then moved over to Papa's row and did the same for him so that he and Mama could move up their rows evenly. Roberto did not need my help. He was a faster picker than either Papa or Mama. After picking for two long hours, Roberto helped Mama make more room in her sack by lifting it upright and shaking it several times up and down, compacting the cotton to the bottom.
When Mama's sack was too heavy to drag behind her, Roberto took it to the weigh station to be emptied. The station was at the end of the field, about a quarter of a mile ahead. With my help, he flipped the sack over his left shoulder and held it in place with his right hand. I walked behind him, lifting the back end to lighten the load. The front end grazed the sides of the furrow as we made our way to the station. He stopped to rest a few times, and to wipe the sweat from his brow with the red and blue handkerchief tied around his collar. As we approached the weigh station, the contratista there said to Roberto, "You are really strong for such a little guy. How old are you?"
"Fourteen, almost 15," answered Roberto proudly and out of breath.