It’s late June 2017 and I’m standing at a kitchen sink in Antioch, California cutting mangoes. It’s dark and cool in our rented Airbnb, but outside it’s dry and bright and pushing 100 degrees. Much hotter and drier than our hometown of Portland, Oregon nearly ever gets. Our curtains are drawn, the AC is on, and my twin teenage sons are sweaty puddles on the floor, vegging out after 3 days and 900 miles on the road. Our family road trip – easily the best, happiest time we’ve ever spent together.
We’ve just settled into our new digs, having first checked in, unloaded, then run to the nearby grocery store for supplies. Fruit was on sale, so I bought as much as was reasonable, plus a little. An entire array of delicious, fresh fruits: mangoes, bananas, grapes, and oranges. A welcomed change from the heavy, nutrient-poor road food we’ve been eating. We got the groceries inside, then my sons tapped out, stripped down to their skivvies, and positioned themselves over AC vents on the floor. They’re not used to this heat. But I am.
I’m running a sharp knife over the soft green and yellow skin of the mango in my hand, gently peeling it away to reveal the bright orange meat underneath. The sticky juice runs slightly between my fingers as I peel. Suddenly, I’m hungry for this mango in a way that surprises me. Then, I remember. I remember the hunger for mangoes.
Suddenly, it’s midday, summer, 1988 and I’m sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of an enormous outdoor swap meet in Las Vegas. I’m 12. My 13 year old sister, Kim, is there with me. The sun above us is relentless and we’re both hot as hell and terribly dehydrated. Our skin is blistered red. In front of us, our stepmom, Ruth, haggles with a customer over something. She settles the sell and I see another $5 bill go into the metal money box she guards like a dragon over its treasure.
We’ve been coming out here, to this swap meet, every single Saturday and Sunday all summer. Ruth makes us. It’s our penance for being alive – for her being saddled with us ever since her soon-to-be-ex-husband did the horrendous thing he did to make her a single mom, which she blames me for. But she blames my mom and stepdad in New Mexico most for her current lot. My sister was supposed to return home at the end of this summer, but my mom and stepdad said they wouldn’t take her back. I don’t know why.
Me, I expected to stay in Vegas at the end of this summer and never return to our home in southern New Mexico, where we live during the school year. It was pre-planned for me to move to Vegas permanently this summer, though what happened wasn’t pre-planned. And Kim being forced to stay in Vegas, too – that wasn’t pre-planned. And Ruth becoming a single mom to her two young children she had with my dad while also becoming the grudging custodian of two girls from her husband’s first marriage was definitely unplanned. This whole state of affairs was an entire series of unfortunate surprises.
This is all my fault somehow, but Ruth resents my sister and me equally. She never misses an opportunity to tell us what a burden we are. How much more all of her food, clothing, and utility costs have risen because of us. How useless our mom is. How she’d kill herself from “all of this” if it weren’t or her two real children.
Ruth owns the home we live in. It belonged first to her parents, and then to her. There’s a back, walled-off patio area just outside the sliding glass doors that probably went into the backyard at one time. But now, it’s just a large, rectangular room containing mountains and mountains of items – furniture, knick-knacks, exercise equipment, vintage items, gardening supplies, etc. Literally, an entire, gigantic room packed 6 feet high, wall-to-wall with a random pile of crap that I have always marveled over. It’s been there, slowly growing, every summer since I first began visiting when I was six. But now, it’s become Ruth’s answer to her new financial problems.
School starts soon, and Ruth has the horrible, no-good responsibility to buy Kim and me school clothes and supplies. To earn this extra cash, she’s made us wake up before dawn every Saturday and Sunday morning for weeks and load up her minivan with as much of the backroom crap as we can fit. Then we drive to the outdoor swap meet, unload all of it, lay it out, and wait for customers to come. Sometimes, Ruth lets my sister or me handle a transaction if she wants to take some of the cash and “go look around.” She never gets anything for me or Kim, just her real children. She never offers us any money to go look around ourselves, either. We’re only there for manual labor. To earn our keep. We have a bottle of water and a salami, mustard, and cheese sandwich on white bread to get us through our day.
Sometimes I’m tempted to steal when I’m left alone so she can look around. The temptation is electric. I can feel it in my shoulders and chest and I know it would feel so good. But I never do.
The space Ruth rents is adjacent to a vendor who sells enormous $5 mangoes on a stick. He calls out to passers by, “Mango! Consiga tu mango!” I’ve asked Ruth before if I can have one, but she’s always said no. Her favorite word for me is “dodo,” as in, “Don’t be a dodo, $5 is too much money for a mango.” But I disagree. I’ve only had mangoes a couple of times, and only during my past visits to Vegas. It’s not a fruit we can get easily or cheaply in southern New Mexico.
On this particular day, though, I’m so hot and thirsty and sunburned that watching the mango man cut his fruit and insert them onto sticks and waggle them around at passersby is maddening. My mouth is a shriveled sponge and it’s killing me to watch the mango man drip the golden juice of his fruit down his hand as he peels.
After Ruth completes her transaction, she takes $20 out of the cash box and tells Kim and me to watch the station while she goes to browse. I know Ruth always does a money count before she walks away, so I know I can’t take money out of the box. But, god, I want a mango. A woman walks up soon after and begins looking through our wares. She picks up something small – something that can be missed – and asks how much it is. “Ten dollars,” I tell her. The woman looks at the item skeptically while I stand and smile at her as best I can.
“Oh, alright,” she says, and hands me a $10 bill.
I don’t even put the money in the cash box, but turn to my sister and say, “Kim! Let’s go get a mango!” Kim is always the more cautious one and hates it when I “make trouble.” She protests, saying we’d better not, that Ruth will be angry. “But she won’t even notice!” I say. Finally, against my sister’s protests, I run over to the mango man and buy two mangoes. I run back over to our station and hand one to Kim. “Hurry!” I say. “Ruth will be back soon.”
Like me, Kim is also dehydrated. As it is for me, the temptation of the fruit is too much for her to endure. We both slurp, chew, swallow, grunt, and devour our mango on a stick in less than minute. I take the remnants and run them over to the mango man’s trashcan. We clean up our faces as best we can. Soon, Ruth returns. We’re relieved that she doesn’t notice the missing trinket. Not ever.
I finish peeling the mango over the sink in Antioch, then slice it and wash my hands. I take a plate full of fresh fruits and a bag of corn chips into the living room, where my sons have now recovered from their foray into the sun. They sit up and we start snacking, all cross-legged and casual on the floor of our one room rental. One of them makes the other laugh. I laugh, too. I lean over and kiss them each on the forehead. They both look at me like I’m diseased, because they’re teenage boys and mom kisses are icky 30% of the time now. But they don’t wipe it off, and instead keep making each other laugh. While I watch them, I eat my mango.