I wash my armpits with day-old sanitized water. On the days I do not have water, I use spit. I force a spoonful of leftover sweet-boiled rice, from the bowl on the trailer counter, into my mouth. It is cold and pasty. Sugar makes such meals enjoyable so I’ve ensured we have enough. I pull out a dried apricot wrapped in a napkin from under the sink. Yesterday, my grandson, Kai, presented it to me like a cat gifting his owner a small, dead bird, as if he knew he had done something wrong. I knew he took it from the makeshift market that lines the trailer park. But at 10, if Kai’s only transgression is the occasional shifting of a piece of dried fruit, I have done something right.
Clawing a grain of rice from my back molars, I imagine Kai in class doing the same.
At the sink, I rinse my bowl with the leftover water. I slide the apricot onto my tongue. My saliva rehydrates the flesh and I resist the urge to bite. In this way, it will last.
The trailer door rattles from a knock. I smooth out my hair in the mirror for which I traded two ceramic bowls last month. I hide my hair, brittle from the Texas air, in a shawl. Presentable, I think, like a woman my age should look. No need to spend money on hair oil rather than Kai’s martial arts classes and summer math lessons.
I let my first client in.
She unlatches her smallest child from her hip and dumps it, whimpering like my daughter-in-law in the night, on the floor. Down, too, goes her satchel of soiled laundry. From across the table, she slides me a jar of pickled okra. Also, some wrinkled money. Thank you, thank you, she says.
I appraise her as if I were my son, Bradley, Kai’s father. He’d called her sexy before he left for California four days ago. This woman, like Bradley’s wife, is in her mid-30s. But unlike his wife, my client is poor, from nothing. When she bends over to shovel her clothes into my washing machine, I note: strong legs, thick hips.
She lives on the south side of the trailer park in a tent with the other late-arrivals, those who lost their jobs and homes in the third or fourth wave of layoffs at the refinery. The smarter among us, those who brought goods or services for bartering, like me and my washing machine, sleep in electricity-wired trailers.
The child drools onto the floor. Does this woman know how painfully dimwitted her child is compared to Kai when he was that age? From the cabinet I pull lemon rind vinegar and wipe the dribble with a towel. I hum, trying to appear pleasant.
I slide the apricot onto my tongue. My saliva rehydrates the flesh and I resist the urge to bite. In this way, it will last.
In 40 minutes, my second client arrives with a large bag of dried black beans. The women shuffle around one another. One takes clothes out, damp, smelling of oranges; the other piles in.
They do not touch.
The first uproots her child from the floor and leaves to hang her laundry outside her tent. One blessing about living on this stretch of cracked earth is the Texas heat: her clothes will dry in eight minutes.
I imagine her walking north, in the direction of the government-sanctioned water sanitization station, past the makeshift market where some of the thousands of souls living here haggle jean patches and coffee grounds. To the west, beyond the fence, poison vaporizes into the atmosphere from the abandoned oil refinery.
My second client and I sit and talk. I brew tea to pour over ice. Thankfully, I do not need sanitized water to wash clothes.
She tells me that her daughter was attacked last night on a walk. No electricity like on our side of camp. She fears for her daughter. I slip her a safety pin, the clasp unlatched. From three years of friendship, I know she will tell her daughter to stick it in hard.
Heard from Brad? she asks.
Soon, I say.
I do not mention that Bradley took our charger, that my phone has been dead for three days.
Most men here, feeling useless, shrivel into themselves. So when Bradley declared he was leaving, I was not surprised. But when Kai heard, his stammer returned. My daughter-in-law stopped eating. And, because it is Bradley who forced the four of us to live in this one trailer, I thought he might have paused. Instead, he hopped on the truck bed with a dozen others and went west.
Forgiveness is a mother’s job. It is my job to forgive Bradley for deserting us here with painful worry. But this process is laborious, punishing work. For this, I am not a good mother. To begin, I must remind myself of all I have forgiven him. Totaling my car the night of his father’s funeral, missing the birth of his son, too coked-up, gambling away our inheritance—these things I have moved on from.
At a quarter to 12 I walk 20 minutes to a strip mall where Kai learns Tae Kwon Do. Unlike my clients, who have reported the Route 9 wind driving pebbles into their eyes, I shield my eyes with my shawl.
On the floor, with my legs pretzeled, I keep my face a stone, though inside I beam.
Kai is not the best, but not mediocre either. He’s better than my clients’ boys, at least. Blocking comes naturally to him. He parrots the shouts and the thank-yous, gamsahamnida. But his stances must be lower, the Koreans say, the edges of his feet glued to the ground. The Koreans suggest he practice one thousand times.
Guande-chirugi, the Koreans shout, and 30 students punch air.
Kai smiles at me and I nod. My lips cement into a firm line.
We’d been here for two years before I gave the Koreans a chance. The more families moved in, the more students began attending, and not just the ones with frayed shoes. They all seemed calmer, more humble. The more Bradley drank and whined, the more I worried Kai would interpret this behavior as normal.
Now, these foreign men teach Kai the respect, patience, and obedience that his parents do not. By my design, I hope, Kai will not turn out like his father.
When I was a young mother, my dear friend Nina and I snuck into neighboring towns to work odd jobs. Our husbands had too much pride; they claimed they made enough money for the whole household. Nina and I walked dogs, tutored children, and picked up groceries for elderly women and kept our mouths shut. With the earnings, we treated ourselves to the small luxuries we grew up with, those our husbands on their middle-class salaries could not afford. We loved to order sushi for lunch and fill Christmas stockings with imported licorice. We splurged on matinee showings of independent films and deep-tissue massages. The secrecy, and our husbands’ ignorance, made us exultant.
Forgiveness is a mother’s job. It is my job to forgive Bradley for deserting us here with painful worry. But this process is laborious, punishing work.
The night my family and I left, after the house was foreclosed and our bank account emptied, I brought my washing machine and 26 extra-large cartons of cigarettes. Once we set up our trailer far from the tents, I traded cigarettes for hair clips, candies, extra bread. I traded these for makeup, eggs, gossip, menstrual pads, a deck of cards, and spices. Soon I traded an industrial fan for a knife. A knife for a whole year’s worth of rice. Now, I maintain my income with the laundry machine. I imagine wherever Nina is, whether in California or a trailer somewhere in Texas, she is doing the same. Now, at my home, my clients complain, they play victim. They lost their jobs at the refinery, they say, their lives are over. Part of me knows this is valid. The other part wants to strangle them. When they talk, I listen but share nothing. In this way, they will never doubt that I am above them.
Though I do not look at Kai, keeping my chin up as my mother taught me, I can smell him. Wafts of little boy sweat. The smell he will lose in a year or two.
I see the women who have brought me fabric, soap, an extra gallon of sanitized water, a fresh loaf of white bread in thanks.
One of my clients corners us and pinches Kai’s cheek. She says, You are one lucky woman, a washing machine and a grandson.
I nod and think to charge her extra next week.
I am not lucky. I am myself.
As Kai reaches for the door, I grab his wrist. He knows this time is for reviewing his summer homework, not for socializing. Digging in my nails, hard so he will learn, I say, Where is your head?
Though the summer tutoring day starts earlier, with lessons in English or history, Kai’s time is best spent on math and science. He will only be useful if he knows how to grow food, produce energy, and plan infrastructure. On lawn chairs, the thick, plastic straps soldering our dampened t-shirts to our backs, I quiz him on multiplication tables and the names of vitamins in soil to ensure he will be the smartest in class. Had I done this with Bradley, maybe he would not be lazy with ego.
Bradley assumes the Californians will hire him to code. In truth, he’ll work with the rest of the displaced: cleaning toilets and mowing lawns and picking berries. If he’s lucky, detailing cars. He knows nothing of lowering himself to provide for his family, just as he knows nothing of growing food, producing energy, and planning infrastructure.
Marge, dropping off her son Tony, pulls out her phone. It is the first phone I’ve seen in days with a charging port identical to mine. She is pleasant enough, and smarter than most here—still, I don’t want to ask to borrow it. We nod at one another.
I say to Kai, Don’t fidget, make eye contact, speak loud and clear.
I kn-know Gramma, I know, he says, and kisses my cheek.
My fifth client lets herself in and places a soap bar on the table next to loose change. I cringe, it’s not enough.
I’m sorry, she says. I don’t have much today, yes. But my sister got a job at the new salon in the market. She will cut your hair in exchange.
My hair needs cutting? I ask.
Get a neck rub if you’d rather, she says. Something to make you feel good.
These women are all idiots, though I’d never say. Feeling good to them means something vain you wouldn’t buy for yourself. And though I once enjoyed such luxuries, I did so when I had money. Now, I’d feel good receiving extra vegetables or school supplies for Kai. I’d feel good offloading my daughter-in-law from our trailer to a tent across camp. I’d feel good hearing that Bradley arrived safely.
When they talk, I listen but share nothing. In this way, they will never doubt that I am above them.
By my seventh client, I’ve heard about a child dying from heat stroke on a truck, like the one Bradley is on now, on its way to California. After a father’s leg got tangled in the barbed wire fence, guards caught the family as they attempted to break into the oil refinery to steal food. Another man was arrested for breeding miniature huskies in his trailer in this heat. The dogs were put down and he was imprisoned with free food in an air-conditioned cell. These things happen. After thousands of loads of laundry, I have heard every story before.
My first memory is of a lightning storm. Along with thunder, the sound of tree branches snapping, the rush of wind breaking trunks from their roots shook me. When a thick branch crashed on the roof, my mother buckled me into the car seat and drove to a restaurant in town. In the dark, we ate soup and turkey cold cuts on bread. Because the restaurant’s refrigerator broke, water pooling underneath, they gave us food for free. My mother hugged me to her and, as my head was warmed by the softness of her chest, I felt safe.
When, 25 years later, the power lines blew out in our town, I was the mother. I was meant to comfort, rather than be comforted. It was the first time I loathed motherhood. I flinched at the maternal expectation that demanded I sacrifice my emotions for the sake of the child’s. My child. But I did not feel his need for me as strongly as my need to hide until the storm passed, to hug my knees to my chest alone. Do I regret locking myself in the closet and letting my late husband comfort our son? No. Should I? Maybe. Ask any mother here and she’d say, yes.
On our walk home, women wrangle children inside. They shout to one another, hi, hello there, have a good night. Trailer doors slam, open, shut, open, in their flimsy, plastic way.
A thick, red A adorns Kai’s math quiz. I hand him a dehydrated beetroot, sweet like candy, as a reward. We walk home with my hand resting on the back of his neck.
My daughter-in-law smokes a cigarette on our trailer steps, her eyelids heavy. Sara, I remind myself. The woman has a name.
Sara sighs and throws the butt of her lit cigarette at my feet. I stomp it out in the dirt.
Kai wiggles from my grasp and runs to her. Perching him on her knee, she combs through his hair with her fingers. How many times must I tell her not to spoil him with physical affection? She should get a job, not coddle him like a baby.
How was Gramma today? Sara asks him, kneading a knot in his back. Did she give you a hard time?
Kai bends to whisper in her ear.
Ouch! Sara says, He nipped me.
Leaning back, smiling, and then leaning in again, Kai beaks her cheek with his nose. He grins at her until her face softens and she nuzzles him back.
Can I play until the sun goes down? Kai asks, still facing Sara.
Thirty minutes, I say.
Any gossip today? I ask Sara, steadying my voice to seem sincere. She lights another cigarette, a habit she revived when Bradley left, along with not combing her hair.
She says, Rumors of a truck that exploded.
My leg thrusts against her shoulder that blocks the door as I rush for the dead cellphone.
Outside my trailer, phone in hand, I breathe myself calm. Here, everything smells of garbage. Kai, across the pathway, smiles at me. He stands in a circle of older boys. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. An ogre spits on the ground by another trailer’s steps. Kai, two feet his junior, nudges his arm in reprimand.
Sweet Kai. I doubt Bradley at 10 years old would have done the same.
Kai, I say. Come here. No playing dirt-ball in Southside and no soda while I’m gone. Don’t go into anyone’s trailer and don’t let anyone into ours.
He says, I know, Gramma, I know.
Turning so quickly I feel a breeze from my skirt, I march east. In my periphery, a boy resembling Kai spits on the trailer steps. I exhale. When I look back, Kai nudges a goon I had not noticed before, a similar size and build as he, in the same way he nudged the last culprit. Of course it was not Kai; my stress is making me see things.
I was meant to comfort, rather than be comforted. It was the first time I loathed motherhood. I flinched at the maternal expectation that demanded I sacrifice my emotions for the sake of the child’s.
At Marge’s trailer I knock on the door, furious that Bradley left us without a phone charger. Relying on Marge for hers makes me uneasy. I twist my skirt around my fingers, using it as a barrier against my tightened fist so I will not lose circulation.
She opens the door, taps her generator, and says, We are waiting. Tony went for gasoline at the plant. I’ll make tea.
To ask to take the charger back to my trailer would be rude, I remind myself. I do not want to come across as ungrateful. In silence I drink my iced tea. It is jasmine, a luxury.
I wonder if Tony will return scratched like last time. She’d assumed it was from the barbed wire that encircles the abandoned refinery, but I know of larger children who went to steal canisters who came back without markings. I wonder what Tony’s were from.
I itch to plug in the phone. To hear it chime on. To feel the vibration of my son’s news, telling me he’s safe.
We hear a child’s fist beat on the door. Rat-a-tat-tat. My friend sighs, rushes her hand to her heart. We open the door to a small child with a bloodied eye. He is not Tony, but rather another small boy, a friend of Tony’s, asking for help.
I sit on Marge’s doorstep and watch the sun descend, splitting the sky in two, an orange lashing between an indigo veil and the blackened earth, prickled with cacti, tumbleweed, and dried wildflower stems. Everyone outside is waiting for the agonizing moment when the stripes of color melt into tangerine and scarlet, until a deep, deep pigment engulfs the skyline, and everything flushes the color of an over-ripe plum.
These are the colors of pollution, we are told.
Other days, we get storms with inked clouds that arch like rainbows. They are more beautiful than the sunsets because my neighbors cower inside until the storms pass, they who have not developed an appreciation for violence in nature. Rather than hide in a closet, I can sit outside as the storm passes without feeling their eyes on me.
The iced tea has warmed in my palms when Marge charges back in with Tony.
Men, she says, they will take what they will take.
I say, And anyone who says otherwise is deluding herself. What happened?
She tells me about following the bloodied-eyed boy to a throng of teenagers, snatching Tony from them, and screaming until they ran away. At least Tony’s all right. They took the gasoline, she says.
She picks the gravel out from Tony’s knee and bandages his bloodied elbow. She lingers a kiss on his forehead. She says, Tony, are you up for going out another time?
He nods. Though it’s dangerous to send Tony back for another canister beneath the wired-fence, I stay silent. I can only think of Bradley.
When Tony leaves, Marge says, Kai was there, with those guys.
Digging my nails into my palm, I sip warmed tea.
We wait and we wait.
Two hours pass before Tony returns out of breath, poor chicken. As his mother wraps him into her arms, I snatch the gasoline, pour it into the generator, and wait for it to hum on.
I plug Marge’s charger into the outlet.
Only a few more moments.
The phone dings.
Tell Sara and Kai I’m safe. Miss all.
People cannot apologize if they don’t know they’ve done wrong. Though Bradley was good at apologizing, he will not apologize for not mentioning me in his text.
When he was 16, he got Nina’s fourteen-year-old daughter pregnant. I had to find a clinic in Texas that still performed abortions, take her daughter, forge Nina’s signature, and pay. I had to hold the girl’s hand, pretending to be Nina, when the vacuum turned on. I couldn’t tell Nina. It would have ruined her.
Instead, I stopped being her friend.
Men, she says, they will take what they will take.
Bradley could never understand that he took Nina from me. That he stole from me the one person who told me every day that it was a shame I was not a lawyer or an analyst, that I was smart enough for either or both. Who scheduled me an appointment with a grief counselor when my father died and cooked us a month’s worth of lasagna. Who demanded I not feel guilty for one second for locking myself in the closet the day of the storm.
For ruining my friendship, he did not apologize. He did not know what he did wrong.
I am tired, even my toes yearn for sleep.
I leave Marge’s trailer and walk west along the dirt road toward home. Behind me, a man kicks his dog. If only this surprised me. If only I had not seen everything before.
On my side of camp, a gaggle of boys push someone into the center of a circle. They keep shoving, and shoving, from one side of the circle to the other. In the middle is a girl, maybe 12 years old, or 11.
Then, there’s Kai. Oh, Kai.
He steps into the circle and places his hand on the girl’s shoulder; she is taller than he. And though his gesture is kind, my stomach knots into a tight marble.
He rolls up her skirt until she is exposed. She looks up to the sky, as if she has forgotten that exhaust has cloaked the stars. Kai points a slim finger up and inches it toward her. The girl trembles. He pauses at the base of her and I think, there is still time.
Then, he shoves in his finger and the girl yelps.
Hey, hey, you, you! I say. My voice echoes off the metal frames of trailers. My words sound robotic. As if someone else had said them.
The boys scramble, birds without heads. In their hurry, they do not see me.
I shuffle up to the girl, longing to calm her, to press her cheek to the warmth of my chest, to make her feel safe.
I had no such urge with Nina’s daughter, pregnant with Bradley’s child. I knew he was my family, my obligation. The decision to force the girl to get rid of it, then, was made before I could think, could pause. Had I, Bradley might not be spoiled, might not expect to be forgiven for all his offenses. Had I, I might not have nightmares about shushing a fourteen-year-old girl as the doctor lifted the vacuum to her hospital gown-covered knees. Or of quieting her again, her lips still sticky from the strawberry ice cream, my treat, when I dropped her off at home and saw Nina shadow the doorway. Had I, I might not always wake at the moment I wrapped my hand around the girl’s wrist, dug my nails in, and pressed my finger to my lips.
Now, the girl in front of me shudders, though the heat is so thick it is hard to move. As I inch closer, I see the raised baby hairs on her collarbones. Her skirt is still wrenched above her right hip. When she looks at me, her eyes widen in recognition. She knows I am Kai’s grandmother.
Why should I not protect Kai in the same way I protected his father? Kai is my responsibility, not this scrawny thing dumb enough to be out alone in the dark. I scoot toward her, this statue of a person. She smells sour and I am glad she knows not to cry. With my forefinger I unhitch the hem of her skirt, careful not to touch her skin.