My mother is dressed and ready to leave the house, but five minutes before we’re supposed to walk out the door she stalls there in the hallway, hands splayed backwards on her hips, eyes pointed downward toward the floor.
“I don’t know about these shoes,” she says.
“They’re fine,” I tell her.
“Black shoes, gray skirt? It’s not going to work.”
“Let’s go,” I say, but my mother stands rooted to the spot like a tomato plant, peering at her feet as if she expected them to speak up and declare themselves a fashion mistake. This is a stalling tactic; my mother is not exactly Gloria Vanderbilt. Most days she drags around the house in sweatpants and whatever tee-shirt turns up clean on top of the laundry pile. When she goes out, to the store or to pay a bill, she just slips an old men’s jacket on top, an old thing made of corduroy the color of California dirt. My sister Lisa is embarrassed to be seen with her but I don’t care what my mother hangs on her body; she could wrap herself in leopard-skin and a tutu for all I care. As long as she walks through that door. As long as she pulls herself out of this apartment and out into the world and off to this job interview, I will be happy. As long as she makes that first leap.
“They don’t match.” She is shaking her head, eyes still downward.
“The shoes are fine. Gray and black are fine,” I say, moving. “Let’s go.”
“People will think I don’t know.”
“Nobody cares. Let’s go.”
She shakes her head.
“Then go put on the gray ones Grandmother gave you. You can’t say gray doesn’t go with gray. Go put them on and let’s go.”
My mother kicks off the shoes and slouches down the hallway, dragging her feet. She is thirty-five, tall and skinny and almond-eyed, skin the color of butterscotch. My mother is pretty, though not nearly as pretty as she used to be. Back when she still worked at the post office, my mother used to wear blue silk blouses with pretty round collars and skirts the color of daffodils and irises. Back then she kept her coppery hair cut short around her face, got it washed and pressed every Saturday at Miss Ann’s, but now she just lets it grow out any kind of way. Today she is wearing it pulled back into a rough and tiny ponytail and a few hairs are sticking out but I say nothing. I stand in the hallway outside her bedroom and wait.
Five minutes later she emerges wearing the gray shoes, which are scuffed and too low in the heel and from the way she walks, kind of tiptoeing down the hallway, clearly too small for her feet. My grandmother is a little woman, full-busted and round-hipped but short, like an overripe peach. She probably wears a size four or five, but we are all tall and flat-footed in our family, my mother too, and it’s clear as day that the shoes are too small. Still, I say nothing, just pick up the car battery from its spot on the floor. I kick open the screen door with my foot and step outside because the thing to do is maintain momentum, to keep going and not stop.
“As long as you’re moving forward, even at a crawl, you’re eating space,” my mother used to say. People would ask her how she could work all night at the post office and then come home and take care of us all day. “You do what you have to do in this life. Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.”
She doesn’t really say stuff like that anymore.
“Lock the door and don’t answer for nobody,” I tell the twins. Faith is off helping Grandmother at her white lady’s house and Lisa has gone to the grocery store on the bus. We will have to leave the twins alone, but really they are plenty old enough now. They sit watching some crap on television about the Bicentennial, barely turn their heads to nod goodbye. They keep begging me to take them down to Old Sac for the big parade and celebration coming up, but I am boycotting the whole ridiculous spectacle, a thing that has nothing to do with us. We hold these truths to be self-evident, except when they are not. Two hundred years ago Paul Revere rode past me in a field somewhere and told me to get the hell back to work.
We go outside, climb down the rickety stairs of the apartment house past the Mexicans on the first floor. Their door is open and salsa music blares loudly onto the street. The woman who lives there smiles at my mother as we pass, says something in jackrabbit Spanish that sounds friendly enough. But my mother ignores her, concentrating on her feet. I smile and nod in apology, the weight of the car battery turning my arms to lead. All I want to do is get down the stairs without falling on my face and put the stupid battery into the car. It’s a pain in the butt, hooking the battery every night, covering it with an old towel and carrying it upstairs, but my mother insists. She thinks that if we leave the battery in the car overnight the Mexicans will steal it. My mother hates Mexicans, hates and is scared half out of her wits of them. Never saw one in her life until we moved here two months ago, but now she thinks they are the biggest threat to the black man in this country, plotting to be the good minorities and take away all our jobs.
It all started right after we got here, when we moved into an apartment that looked clean and found out that the roaches were just waiting for us to settle before they announced their presence. After a week they came out of the woodwork, scurrying across the floor at night and spilling out of the cabinets whenever you opened the door. It was disgusting. But when my mother called the landlord to plain, he blamed it on the Mexican family that lived upstairs. And she bought it because the landlord was a fat, balding black man from Alabama. He played my mother like a drum. Claimed he had exterminated before we moved in and would get out to do it again as soon as he could, but it wouldn’t do any good because of “those dirty Mexicans.” We found another apartment. This time the Mexicans were downstairs and the roaches were none.
“We need gas,” my mother says as we reach the sidewalk and head towards Betsy. Betsy is a 1969 Dodge which has carried us two thousand miles to this golden place.
“We don’t have time.”
“Well, we better make it unless we want to walk.” My mother rummages through her bag, looking anxious. “All I have is five dollars. We’ll have to go to that place on Poplar Street.”
The place on Poplar Street is out of our way. Going there will add at least ten minutes to the trip, but arguing with her would add twice as long. That’s probably what she wants.
“Open the hood,” I say. My hands have begun to sting.
Five minutes later we are easing out of our neighborhood, rounding the rounded streets onto the mail avenue and heading toward town. Now that we’re moving I can relax, a little, look out the window at the city rolling past. I still can’t get over how pretty it is, how much more beautiful California is than any other place I have ever seen. People here say Sacramento’s not even the best part, that there’s no ocean, no white sand beaches, no cliffs falling off into the sea. I don’t know; it looks pretty great to me. Compared to Memphis, Sacramento looks like some kind of dream world, some kind of heavenly place. Memphis was dirt patches and clustered houses and people always shiny with sweat. Memphis was the blast of heat from the oven on your ass in the winter as you rushed into the kitchen to dress because it was the only warm place in the house. Memphis was the tin smell of clothes from Goodwill and the tin taste of food from a can. Memphis was the suffocating feel of a blanket pressing down.
But California sparkles. California shines and breathes and slices through the air. My grandmother calls California “The Promised Land” and though she says it with a grin I know she’s not joking. Not joking at all.
That first day I saw it, that day we crossed the border from Arizona and stopped at a checkpoint, I could feel the promise coming. Two troopers came out of this little hut off to the side of the stopping point: one black trooper and one white. The black one smiled at us in the back seat, and my heart flipped: I had never seen a black cop before. He was maybe my mother’s age, maybe older, with blue-black skin and sparkling white teeth and shoulders that looked as though they could lift up the car. His sunglasses, as he leaned in through the window, were mirrors that showed us us.
“Where you coming from?” he asked my mother. Outside, the white cop circled the car with a dog.
“Tennessee!” He whistled, peered into the back seat. “That’s a long drive! You drove all that way with these kids by yourself?”
“Yes, sir,” said my mother.
“Girl, you must be some kind of tough.”
My mother looked startled. We’d been driving for two days, stopping at rest stops to use the bathroom and get food and so my mother could grab a few hours of sleep while Lisa kept watch and I kept the twins from running wild. My mother’s hair was buried beneath a faded yellow kerchief, her shirt was wrinkled and her feet were bare, but this handsome black cop smiled at her like she was sugar for his tea.
She smiled back, seemed just about to speak when the white cop stuck his head in the passenger window, past Lisa, who flattened herself against the seat.
“Any fruit, vegetables, plants or agricultural products in the car?” he demanded.
“Apples for the kids? A cutting from your rose bush back home?”
“No, sir.” My mother’s smile snapped off like a dead branch.
I pushed forward, grabbed the back of the seat. “Didn’t you hear? She said no!”
Next to me, Faith gasped. My mother spun around and glared, but I didn’t care. Let him arrest me, let him beat me with a hose. We were going to California and he wasn’t going to turn us back.
The white cop glared at me through his mirrored glasses but the black cop just slapped my mother’s door and laughed. “Don’t mind him,” he said. “He’s new, an eager beaver.”
He straightened and stepped away from the car. “Welcome to California,” he said. “I hope it’s everything you want it to be.”
My mother drove away from the station so slow I wanted to get out and run alongside the car, glancing in the rearview mirror as though the dogs were on our tail. But after a few miles she relaxed, and sped up and laughed and then suddenly we were passing some kind of trees lined up in a field and she pulled the car over to the side of the highway and jumped out.
Right there on the side of the highway with the cars whizzing past my mother began dancing, throwing out her arms, swinging her hips. “The land of milk and honey!” she cried. “Praise the Lord!”
She looked ridiculous out there, jiggling around like the grandfather from The Real McCoys and singing about orange trees. But she was laughing, really laughing, so we laughed too.
We drove up to Sacramento where my grandmother had been living for eight or nine years. Within a week we had an apartment and we didn’t have to worry about heat. My mother got dressed and went down to the welfare office and we had food stamps and food enough and school was fine and we even got dental care. Lisa made an appointment right away, because her teeth were the worst and when she came home her mouth was full of silver and she just smiled.
And then one day, after we had been in California for little more than a month, we came home from school to find our mother gone. The twins started crying right away, scared that she had finally run off and left us to “fend for ourselves among the wolves of the world,” the way she was always promising/threatening/warning she would. Faith started praying. Lisa stomped around the apartment for a while, arms folded across her chest, trying not to cry. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew that crazy bitch would crack one day.”
But half an hour later as we were trying to decide what to do, our mother came back. Just walked in the apartment carrying a sack of groceries and a stack of library books like it was nothing, like she was anybody else’s mother. Like she had not spent the last five years in Memphis never leaving the house. Her hair had been pressed slicked back into a small ponytail at the base of her neck. She wore stockings and earrings and a lemon-colored skirt and jacket I had never seen before.
“Grandmother gave it to me,” she said, twirling in the middle of the room. The twins, thunderstruck, sat open-mouthed upon the bed.
“It’s a little big, but isn’t it nice?”
The twins giggled and clapped, but Faith and Lisa and I just sat on the couch and stared.
“Why do you need a suit like that?” I asked. “You have nowhere to wear it.”
“What do you know, Miss Smartypants?” She twirled in front of the mirror, twirled right there on the raggedy gray carpet, so thin in spots you could see the rough boards beneath it, so worn the vacuum snagged on the strings. “I might wear it to your school, maybe. Or to church.”
“Right,” I said.
“Or to a job interview.”
“You’re going on a job interview?”
“I might.” She was still twirling, twirling like a princess, and one pass I noticed a smudge of red lipstick on the collar of her blouse, but it blended in and looked kind of pretty. So I kept my mouth shut.
* * *
It takes us awhile to get downtown. We drive along one highway after another, passing green fields and brown fields and then squat subdivisions as we enter the city. After a while we see signs for the capitol and pull off the highway onto downtown streets shady with lush green trees. “Look at those oranges!” my mother says, the way she does every time we drive around here. “Oranges free for the taking in the middle of downtown!”
We drive around trying to find the building and getting lost on the one-way streets. “Just ask somebody!” I say. My mother hates to ask for guidance, not because she minds admitting that she’s lost but because she doesn’t trust people not to give her the wrong directions out of spite or ignorance. She keeps driving and driving and my fingers clutch the door handle until finally she pulls into a gas station and rolls down her window. The pump guy is short and broad-shouldered and wearing stained blue overalls. When he turns around I can see he is Mexican. I sink down in my seat.
“You probably don’t know where Commerce Street is, do you?” she says.
Without taking his hand off the pump plugged into a dust-covered pickup truck, he says, in perfect, rhythmic English, “Three lights down, take a right, one block over.”
I yell “Gracias!” as we pull away.
We find the building, park and walk around front to see a line snaking from the door across the sidewalk and onto a grassy slope. My mother sighs. All the way down in the car she’d been saying that no one would be here, that no one knew about the job openings yet. But I knew better and brought a book to read. We take our place behind a thin Chinese man and settle in. Sometimes it seems I have spent my life waiting in line.
After a few minutes, a white woman in a red dress and heels comes clicking out of the building and walks down the line, shoving applications into waiting hands. She looks as though she doesn’t want to actually touch anyone, as though they might be carrying some awful disease. “If you don’t have a high school degree, you might as well go home!” she yells, as though the people were a hundred feet away instead of right in front of her. “If you are not an American citizen you might as well go home! If you do not speak English you might as well go home! If you cannot provide proof of past employability you might as well go home!”
As she passes us, my mother tries to stop her. “Miss?” she says. The woman either does not hear or decides to ignore, not even looking up. Her blond hair flies back from her face in one of those Farrah Fawcett haircuts; her bare shoulders are peeling from a tan. She wears blue eye shadow and red lipstick slathered across her thin lips, curled now into a kind of snarl. You can tell she thinks she’s cute, but she isn’t, not at all. Though probably it doesn’t matter. Probably all the men look at her and see her hair and her eye shadow and think she’s cute.
“Why are you trying to talk to her?” I ask my mother. I don’t like the tone her voice has taken on, the tone she uses when talking to white people.
“I want to tell her about the post office.”
This is not good. Why, I’m not sure but it’s not. “Why? Why do you need to do that?”
But my mother has turned away from me and back toward the woman, has pasted on the smile, the fake little forced curve of the lips she reserves for white people she doesn’t want to have to deal with. Which is to say, all of them.
“Mom, I don’t think—”
Her back is to me now as she tracks the woman’s progress but she cuts me off anyway. “I want to tell her I have federal experience. Maybe she’ll move us to the front of the line.”
Sweat breaks out in the pit of my arms. I look around. The woman has all but thrown the last of her applications into the crowd and is striding back up the line, her eyes fixed on the building like a solider running for the foxhole.
“Miss!” calls my mother and I want to reach out and put my hand over her mouth. The line in front of us inches forward. I try to push my mother along but she will not move. Sweat runs down my back.
“Excuse me, Miss? I want to ask you something, please!”
The woman is right beside us now, still moving, and so my mother reaches out an arm to stop her, not touching the woman, just patting the air. It is enough; the woman stops dead as if she has spotted a snake in her path. She turns to my mother with a curl of her ruby lip.
“I don’t have any more applications,” she says.
My mother’s smile stretches some more. “Oh, no, I have one. I wanted to ask if people with federal experience should also wait in this line?”
The woman blinks. In the sun her eyes look like glass from a Coke bottle, cracked in the street.
“I have federal experience,” my mother repeats, being helpful. “I used to work for the postal service.”
The woman blinks again, as if the snake in her path has donned a top hat and begun to sing. “What?”
“Maybe people with experience could go to another line?”
All of a sudden the woman barks out a laugh. It is so harsh and deep and loud it seems to be coming from beyond her, from some man she has hidden in her shoe.
“The post office? Who gives a crap?” the woman says, still laughing. “Get back in line.”
Then she turns and runs, really runs, for the door.
I do not want to look at my mother but the line has surged in front of us and the people behind are pushing and saying, “Move! Move!” So I put my hand on my mother’s back and inch her along. Beneath the silk blouse Grandmother has lent her the flesh feels like a biscuit dough.
Her face takes on a funny, strangled look, as if tiny people were inside, clutching at her skin. I have seen this look before, back in Memphis. I saw it the night the policeman brought Lisa home.
The babysitter, a stupid, slack-mouth, cow-faced girl who lived two blocks over and who my mother had called as a desperate, last-minute substitution when the regular babysitter just failed to show up, told the cop my mother was “off somewheres.” The cop twitched his pink, fleshy face and said that he would wait.
I don’t know how long it took for my mother to rush home from work. It seemed a lifetime, me and Faith hiding there in the kitchen with the twins while the dumb-as-bricks babysitter watched Charlie’s Angels right there in front of that fat, white cop. He made Lisa sit on the couch next to the sitter and he talked at her the whole dang time, talked right over Charlie and Sabrina and Bosley, talked about the bad, bad things that happened to fast little girls who hung out in places like that, who ran the streets like sluts. I had never heard that word before—slut. The next day, in the school library, I looked it up.
When my mother rushed in, her face flamed and shining, her beautiful hair turning back at the roots from the perspiration glistening at her forehead, the cop turned on her and said, “I guess you have better things to do than stay at home like a halfway decent woman and keep your daughters from turning into whores.”
My mother got that look. She has that look now.
I know what’s going to happen. My mother is going to turn around and walk out of that line, out into the parking and lot and into the car and straight back to Memphis and our life. My stomach feels as if it wants to climb up out of my throat and my heart is beating so hard I think I might faint. I will have to stop her, except how? How can I do that?
“Mom,” I say, but my voice falters. Anyway my mother is moving. Except not out of the line. Forward with it to the front.
It takes us over an hour to get inside the building. My mother does not talk, so neither do I. Instead I pretend to read the book I have carried with me, except the little black dots on the page refuse to make sense. Finally, we reach a desk. My mother sits in the chair, and I stand awkwardly behind. A fat white man with black glasses and hair the color of the sun-burn grass in our yard shuffles papers on his desk.
“One at a time,” he says, glancing not exactly at me but at the air in which I stand.
“I’m just here with her. She’s my mother.”
“Then pull up a chair and sit down.”
He shuffles papers for a few more minutes, then takes the application my mother has lain on the desk and breathes out heavily, like he is getting ready to lift something.
“Name?” he asks. At the next table a woman speaks in rapid Spanish, but my mother is silent. I nudge her with my elbow.
“Name?” The man looks up, raises his voice a notch. I look at my mother. Her lips are pressed tightly together, like opening them would take a crowbar. She will not meet my eyes.
“Name?” the man says a third time, his voice hard now. My mother is looking straight at him, her head like some kind of garden stone. She’s looking right at the man. She just won’t speak.
I can feel the spots breaking out on my face, angry, red pimples of embarrassment and shame. By the time we leave here I will look like a freak.
The man glances down at my mother’s application. “Georgia Reese? That your name or not?” My mother nods.
“Well, we have to go over this with you,” says the man, nose sniffing his lip. My mother shifts in her chair.
The man looks back down at the application, mumbling to himself as he reads over our address and phone number.
“Ever worked for the state of California before?”
She shakes her head.
“Ever been rejected for a job with the state?”
Another head shake. The man looks up.
“Are you sure you graduated high school?” My mother smiles and nods, remains silent.
The man slaps the application against the desk. “What is this? Sheesh! I don’t have time for this. Don’t you speak English? Obla Espanol?”
Furious, I reach out to shake my mother’s shoulder. Though I barely touch her she lets her head flop back and forth like a rag doll.
The man slaps the desk again, muttering. His gray eyes narrow and what looks like milk begins to collect in the crevices of his mouth.
“Geez, you people make me sick! Here we are, handing you a job, I mean we’re practically dumping it in your lap and you can’t even sit there and answer a few little questions! You think you’re too good for this? Is that it? Or are you just stupid? Are you just stupid and dumb! Dumb as a brick! Dumb and—”
Suddenly his face loosens and he sits back in his chair, mouth fissuring. “Crap,” he says.
His voice now is like old pudding, slimy and slick. “Hey,” he whispers. “Hey, you. Kid. Hey.”
It’s an effort to drag my eyes from my mother, an effort to stop willing her to speak so hard my teeth grind sand inside my mouth. It’s an effort but I turn to face the man and am startled by his closeness. He seems to be sitting in my lap, his fleshy face just inches away, that’s how far he has leaned over his desk. His steamy, oniony breath threatens to smother me.
“Is she a mute?” he asks. “Sheesh! Why didn’t you say something?”
The word “mute” strikes me like a bowling ball, spiraling me into the lane.
“Is she mute?”
For a moment I wonder. Is she? Is my mother mute? Have I missed it all this time? Why haven’t I known? The man’s eyes are locked upon me now and I struggle to break free from their wintry gaze enough to form a sentence. But before I can do so, before I can force the words down from my head and into my salivating mouth I catch, in the corner of my eye, a movement. A leap into flight.
It’s my mother’s hands. They are moving, first the left, then the right. My mother’s hands rise from her lap and dance like wooden puppets. I look around wildly. The Mexican lady in the next chair stares our way; so does the white woman interviewing her. And the people next to them and the people still waiting in line and the people outside and maybe the entire world. A billion people stop in their fields and bend over their shovels and with the steam rising from their boiling pots stare at my mother’s hands fluttering through the air.
“What’s she saying?” the man asks, but I can’t tell him. I have no idea. My mother’s language is not my own.