I remember a blue door that was once red...or was it a red door that was once blue? Apartment 187 had two bedrooms, one bathroom, nine people, and a million cockroaches. When we turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night, they scattered across the yellow linoleum floor, their short, little legs working hard to get to safety. They were just trying to survive, I guess. Like us.
A little while ago, I ran into some colleagues on the way home from work, and one of them pointed at my chest, lifted an eyebrow and asked, “You’re wearing your name badge home?” I told her I was, and that I always kept my name badge in my purse in case I needed it for something. The truth is, sometimes I forget to take it off, but sometimes I leave it on intentionally. I leave it on because it’s a weapon in a battle I face everyday. It sends a message I don’t need to verbalize—that I have a job, that I can take care of myself. It reminds me that I’ve made it, that I’ve pulled myself out of the poverty hole I grew up in. It acts as a shield against my memories of food stamp and milk vouchers and the barely contained repugnance of more privileged shoppers at the grocery store.
When August rolled around, Mom and Dad would wake us up at 4:00 in the morning. We’d pile into the backseat of our white Toyota Corona and drive an hour to Yuba City to pick plums for a plum farmer. In the backseat of our Toyota, I sank into the comfort and security of being with my family and watched the traffic lights and the early morning sky pass by in a magical swirl. Soon, Dad pulled the car into a long driveway, and we all got out. There were other families there, too, and each family took two rows of trees. Dad worked ahead of us and used a pole to hit the plums so they would fall to the ground, then we’d pick them up on our hands and knees. We were paid by the bucket, and after a week we had each earned about sixty dollars to purchase new clothes for the school year. I’ve been a hard worker all my life. It’s a gift I got from my parents and it’s part of my personal brand.
I am standing on an empty dirt road surrounded by fields of grass, golden from the heat of the sun. The coins dangling from my belt jingle every time I turn or take a step. Too loud, much too loud. I grip the handle of our black umbrella--an unreliable piece of junk Mom can't seem to toss--with one hand and try to close it with the other. It refuses to budge. I’m alone, the stupid umbrella won't close, and the poj ntxoog is coming.