I look down the row at James. Even with the hard gusts of wind and dust blowing in his face, he’s working at twice my speed. He’s strong. His muscles have memorized this work. Mine have, too, but James is different. He has this focus. He cuts the plants like they’re his enemy, but he’s calm about it. He never stops working to wipe the sweat and dirt from his eyes. He says he doesn’t really think about the sun or discomfort when he’s cutting. He thinks about other things.
When I ask James what “other things” he thinks about he just smiles that ragged, brilliant smile of his.
James and I could work in these fields, doing the same thing every day, for the rest of our lives. More than half the continent is desert now, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific. Much of the South has started to dry up, too, or so I’ve heard. Maguey grows quickly in the dry climate, and water is scarce and not to be trusted. Much of what’s left is salty, unfiltered, and full of the dust-remains of dead fish and birds. Alcohol, like mescal or pulque, on the other hand, is clean and safe; it burns away impurities.
Ranches like this one, just outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, are the new lifeblood of the country. Here there are hundreds of hectares of fields reaching past the train tracks and toward the mountains. These fields provide the raw material that will lead to millions of gallons of alcohol. James and I could hop trains, moving from ranch to ranch, following the harvest, always smelling like dried sweat and feeling sticky from maguey sap, for years, decades even, until our bodies give out. We’ve seen it happen: older men or women, their muscles cramped into angles, their skin baked to their bones, stop cutting and just . . . sit. No amount of shouting from the foremen or pleading from the other jimadors will make them move. Eventually, they’re hauled up by their armpits and tossed in the back of a truck with the maguey hearts. We don’t see them again. The foremen tell us they are taken, along with the milk-white hearts that have piled up like severed heads, to the factories, and that they work there, in relative comfort, indoors and out of the sun. I don’t know if this is true. There’s no telling where those people go. The desert is a big place.
This is not our plan—to be old bones in the desert. Our plan involves saving up enough money so that we can catch a train that takes us far away from these fields, all the way to the East Coast, where James and I can open our own ranch, not for cutting maguey but for breaking horses. We’ll go and dip our feet into cold ocean water whenever we want. We’re young; we still have time. We work smart. We work fast.
I hear the man beside me grunt, so I turn to face him. He’s stopped cutting again and now has his foot braced against the side of a maguey plant. His coa blade is stuck in the heart, and he’s attempting to dislodge it by wiggling the handle side to side as if trying to free a loose tooth. A combination of the wind and shifting his weight to his bad leg causes him to fall to the earth and let out a muffled curse.
I set down my tool and go over to grip his. With a cut this deep, the plant is ruined, so I work to save the tool. The wood starts to strain as I push on the handle, and I think for a moment it’ll snap. I throw all my weigh into it anyway, and the blade pops free, accompanied by a sucking sound. A fist-sized hunk of the maguey heart soars through the air in a short arc and lands at my feet.
I help the man to stand and hand him back his coa.
“If you cut too deep like that,” I say, “you’ll destroy the heart. You want to use your blade like it’s a paring knife, and you’re trying to slice the orange part off an orange. No more.”
“I know how to cut maguey,” he mutters.
I don’t get the chance to reply because some jimadors farther down the row have started shouting.
“Down!” I hear them cry out. “Get down!”
I turn slowly, my stomach dropping, and see the storm: a hazy, rust-colored curtain extending from the ground to the sky. Its roar is a dull moan now, but it’s building fast. Within seconds, it’ll crash down on all of us.