Sarita wiped the grime from the bathroom mirror, tied her hair back and rejoined her son Jesse in the lobby that smelled of diesel, processed fruit and gutted fish. The fish—huge salmon, taken from the weirs along the Pentwater River and slit open for their eggs—were actually processed up the street. When the day shift ended there workers came to Human Services to apply for benefits and the smell on their clothes and dull rubber boots was inescapable.
On this crisp fall afternoon, the day of the accident, mother and son settled into the smells and into the waiting. Across the parking lot from the Bear County government building forklifts at Northland Cannery dug into pallets with their crates of apples. Sarita and Jesse watched them go back and forth from the loading docks to the idling trucks. Sunlight that reflected off steel blades occasionally shot through the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows to mark a face here and there.
“You only put your hair up in the orchard,” twelve year-old Jesse said. “And you still owe me for two bushels.”
“You’ll get it on the bus,” said Sarita. “When we go home.” She picked at the hem of her dress, which reached the tops of her brown leather boots, a name brand that she found at the Goodwill after the squash.
They didn’t need much during cherries and pickles. Steady work. But now apples were over, and besides, after the squash she had to pay rent because her farmer didn’t grow apples. And so many workers in the orchard! Never enough boxes. She had just enough money for the bus home.
The receptionist called her name. “You can scan in your documentation,” she said. “A worker will email you the decision.” She pointed to a computer stand across the lobby. “Or you can wait.”
Sarita looked out the window at the tops of the trucks brimming with apples, the name Gray & Sons stenciled on the crates. Maybe she helped fill this truck, she thought. She worked for Peter Gray, a veteran with a bad limp that worsened with the cold. The morning of the first frost, last week, he apologized to the crew for not getting out of his truck.
“I’ll wait,” said Sarita.
In time a door opened and a middle-aged woman said to follow her. Among the dizzying jumble of cubicles at Human Services that seemed to have fallen helter-skelter from the sky, hers was the neatest of the lot. Just my luck, thought Sarita.
“Did you go to the police about the car?” said Mrs. Wilcox, the caseworker. She wore a bright red business suit and her round face was framed by straight brown locks that fell in a perfect line to her jaw. Her skin was soft and unblemished.
Sarita pushed a loose strand of hair from her face and held Jesse tight. “No,” she said. “It was in his name.”
“Berto’s, my crew leader.” She had needed money to send home, and he gave it to her in exchange for the title. When she paid him back, he kept the car and the money.
“Aren’t you receiving child support?”
“The boy’s father disappeared. Before he was born, in fact. The court in Hidalgo never did find him. I put that on the application too. Page 17,” she added, and at once regretted doing so.
“You sure made some poor choices,” said the caseworker.
You don’t know the half of it, thought Sarita. I made poor choices because the good ones were taken. The court knew where Jesse’s father was; the prosecutor wouldn’t bring charges. It was complicated. Her father got some money from the man, which he used to pay her mother’s hospital bills.
Mrs. Wilcox worked at her computer. Sarita turned toward the voices from across the aisle. The welfare building was nothing more than a huge lighted box where everyone heard everyone else’s business.
“I don’t like it here,” said Jesse.
“We’ll be on the bus tomorrow,” said Sarita, stroking his hair.
“Does he have lice?” the caseworker said, peering over her monitor. “It’s going around the school.”
“No,” Sarita said, quickly withdrawing her hand.
“You had all season long to plan for the end of the harvest,” said Mrs. Wilcox.
“Is that a question?”
“You’re how old?”
“You have it there in front of you.”
“Twenty-eight and you seem to be drifting without direction. Know what I mean? Lost. There’s no money for this. Bus tickets. Didn’t you go to Florida at this time last year to pick oranges?”
“It didn’t turn out so good,” said Sarita.
“Apples and oranges,” said Mrs. Wilcox. “There’s got to be be something better.”
Sarita thought of the trip north in April, and how even in the middle of nowhere the next state welcomed them with signs as big and bright as billboards. That is what the signs said. Welcome. To Oklahoma. Or Missouri. Illinois. Michigan. They often played a game to stay awake as one town or field dissolved into the next.
“Are we lost, mamá?” Jesse would say.
“We’re not lost, hijo. How can we be lost with that sunken barn over there and that crooked stop sign next to the pasture plain as day and look at that rusty old bus with the weeds growing sideways out its windows? We’ve not come this say. It’s all new.” Miles later she might say, “Dios mío! It seems that we’ve been on this stretch of highway all our lives! Are we lost?”
“No! We’re not!” Jesse would answer, pushing hard against his seatbelt. “Remember that old barn we passed, and the stop sign bent in half like an old man and the dumb bus? How could we be lost? We crossed the railroad tracks just once and the mighty river just once and see that big silo that rises to the clouds? It’s all new, mamá. All new.”
Each would add one more object—a place, a thing, a name—to this song of the road, as they tried to make pieces of it theirs. The day they left Texas and the day they’d return were bookends to her year, and Sarita struggled not to call the space in between empty.
Now she heard the printer outside the cubicle, and her heart sank. It was a done deal. She looked past Mrs. Wilcox to the window facing the courtyard, where the ivy had turned crimson. The wind pushed an empty swing.
“Is something wrong?” said Mrs. Wilcox.
“I want to see the supervisor,” said Sarita. Es su derecho, the poster in the lobby stated. It’s your right. “I have to leave for Texas today or tomorrow. Apples are over. I’m out of cooking fuel.” She folded her hands on the caseworker’s desk. “I have no money. The camp is closed, and my farmer Mr. VanSlyke told me to leave. He said that he wasn’t in the motel business.”
“Why don’t you call yourself Esperanza?”
Sarita felt the partition walls close in on her, like a noose that tightened at the presence of a certain word or thought. It had been her mother’s name, too. She shifted her weight uneasily in the chair.
“It says here that it’s your given name. Esperanza Sara Madrigal. It’s a pretty name.”
“I don’t want to,” Sarita said. Old business that tugged at her like an anchor; the years had given her some distance, but not slack.
“Well, we just don’t haul off and call ourselves something different when things go bad, do we? I’ll tell the supervisor that you’re here.”
The application in her fist, Mrs. Wilcox stood, then hesitated. A small explosion, a backfire perhaps, gripped the building. She looked across the aisle to the far windows that faced the highway. Sarita, by then also standing, followed her gaze: A steady stream of tourists travelled north for the fall colors, as trucks full of apples headed south to market. “Please,” Mrs. Wilcox whispered. “I have to go. The traffic. You understand.” Then Betty Wilcox, a plump forty years old and not looking well this day, said again, “It’s a pretty name. I don’t see why…”
“She said that we’re lost, mamá.”
“We’re not lost.”
“Then where are we going?”
“But you put your hair up and wore the pretty dress–”
“For you, mí hijo–”
“And look,” Jesse said back. “Nothing.”
“It happens,” she said. If nothing else, she wanted to teach him that. It happens.
“I hate her,” said Jesse. “Que se vaya a chingarse. And get hit by a car.” He looked at his mother and grinned. Sarita slapped the side of his head.
Jesse sulked alone in the lobby, looking at a tattered Sports Illustrated as Sarita read the posters on the wall: the upcoming harvest festival dance at St. Joseph’s Church; the Indian Trails bus schedule (they would have to transfer in Berrien Springs); and a plea to report all child abuse and neglect. She read each flyer, brochure and sheet, except one where the print had faded. She followed the paper trail past the pencil and crayon drawings until, startled, she came upon her own reflection. Some hocus-pocus or other trick, the hanging mirrored and magnified her every move.
She struck various poses as if trying on a new dress. At first the reflection only mimicked her, making her impossibly tall or—if she leaned just right—flat as a plank of wood.
“Jesse,” she said. “Ven acá. Look. It’s magic.”
“Then why don’t you make that woman disappear,” he said without looking up.
Sarita returned to the mirror and watched other shapes take hold. Now there were two selves looking back at her: One razor-thin, like a small child, the other as big as a barrel. Yes, two of me, she thought. Framed to order. The child started walking, yet not going anywhere, as the barrel improbably bobbed and weaved like a balloon in space.
She self-consciously glanced around the lobby. An older couple was trying on winter coats from a rack on wheels. A janitor mopped a corner of the tiled floor. Across from Jesse a handful of other clients chatted among themselves. A tall, slumping man, his back to her, stood waiting for the receptionist who was talking on the phone. No one paid attention to Sarita, and she was relieved.
She again looked into the glass. The child, marching in place, going nowhere, now carried a baton, swinging it freely, a band onto herself. The mirror blinked, went blank and worked again. The child’s hand now stretched toward the sky, larger than life. Above it the baton floated end-over-end, churning like a leaf high in the air, yet suspended aloft for what seemed like an eternity as well. Sarita started to turn away and the screen went black. She forced a smile, half-expecting the credits to roll. Then a whiteness blinded her, it spread like a fog and made her dizzy, bringing her to her knees. The baton had splintered into a thousand pieces as bright as stars. The light rained down on her and pricked her skin like a frenzy of insects. Sarita wanted to run, but felt pressed to the glass, immobile, a part of it; what held her back screamed to let her go. “We’ll say a prayer for you, child,” the janitor whispered. She saw the reflection of the old couple standing alongside him in their new winter coats. She clung to the wall, trembling.
“Never mind that,” the receptionist called over to Sarita, waving at the wall. “Something left over from the science fair at Bear Elementary.” She smiled broadly at her, and only then did the mirror seem to lose its grip and Sarita stepped away. “Mr. King will be with you in a few minutes.”
The entire wall came back into focus for Sarita, like a table of contents in large, bold print. She glanced at Jesse, still absorbed in a magazine. She crossed over to a bulletin board. The play “A Doll’s House” opened that weekend at the community college in Sears Harbor. Christmas tree workers wanted at Slocum Farms. The circus came to town, and left. Circling back, she again saw the page with the faded ink and she stared at it as if expecting to see a sign, some sort of writing on the wall. But nothing had changed. The sheet was still blank, its corners curled and the content whitewashed by too many sunny days. Maybe it was left for her to complete, she thought. What would she say? Esperanza and son looking for a ride to El Valle. Mother and son looking for opportunity? Mother and son scamming the system?
Marty King was as thin and white as a stick of chalk, but spoke to Sarita in Spanish. “Please think it over,” he said. “I’ll talk to Mr. VanSlyke.”
“The bus leaves—”
“Staying,” said Mr. King. “Settling-out. Leaving Jesse in school, and getting your GED.”
Stay? Since infancy she had moved and moved, from oranges to strawberries to peppers, from onions to peaches, from the Gulf of Mexico to Grand Traverse Bay. In the atlas of her life, Georgia meant onions; Ohio, tomatoes; and Lake Michigan, apples. And snow. The office windows shook and the sky turned black with exhaust as the big trucks muscled their way up the road from the loading docks. She thought of her father when he was young and strong and traveled north to work, and how he let her keep the drops beneath the trees and what he got paid for them was hers. Some November mornings, before the sun climbed above the hills, the apples wore little painter caps of snow that her father, moving his ladder about, shook free. Ice water would trickle down her neck.
“It seems so, well, unsettling,” she said to Mr. King.
“Will you be getting unemployment?”
“Probably. Some.” Peter Gray was good about that. She didn’t know about VanSlyke. If she filed, would he want her back next year?
“Please think about it,” said Mr. King. “I’ll call on you tomorrow.”
Sarita had always looked upon Lake Michigan as her own Continental Divide, a border where all streams moved irreversibly in one direction or the other. The great lake stood for that place, a sea really, at the end of the line. You were from Texas, or Michigan. Migrant, or resident. Stay? Her pulse quickened, as if the word itself gave chase. She listened to the falling leaves scratch at Marty King’s window, turned to see them swirl halfway to the sky, and in the distance, beyond the cannery and fairgrounds, far out over the bay, she saw the whitecaps churn and lick the low dark clouds and stick to them like sequins. She had heard that come winter the lake was like a leaky faucet, sometimes the snow never stopped, you couldn’t do a thing about it, drip drip drip, until finally the sky burst open like a Jack-in-the-box and your car might be buried for weeks. If you had one. Stay?
“We’ll wait another day,” Sarita said as they left the county building. Revived by the crisp air, Jesse ran on ahead. She followed wearily and her shoulders sagged, as much from the weight of seasons as from seemingly holding up the net to some endless game where others, the caseworkers, volleyed back and forth. An apple that she couldn’t reach.
The late afternoon sun pierced the heavy clouds that sat over the bay. So bright was the sun’s glare that Sarita had to cover her eyes as she scanned the parked cars for their ride to the camp. A young man in a hardhat, waving his arms and shouting, ran towards her. She turned away to see if Jesse had circled back and saw Marty King helping Mrs. Wilcox into a car.
“I didn’t see him!” said the youth of less than 20 years. Sweat dripped from his ruddy cheeks.
Sarita looked at the wooden crate tilted precariously on the forklift blade. A second hardhat with thick shoulders kneeled over what looked like a rag doll, its legs folded awkwardly. Jesse. Blood from his pant leg trickled under the spilled apples, filling the cracks in the pavement.
“I didn’t see him,” repeated the youth.
“She said that we’re lost, mamá.” Jesse pulled on her sleeve as if to stand.
“Don’t talk hijo,” said Sarita. “We’re not lost. No, we’re not.”
“I’m sorry,” the heavyset man said as he applied pressure to the gash above Jesse’s knee. He then took the boy’s hand and folded it into his own. “The risk is shock. Keep talking.”
For a moment Sarita’s voice failed her. But when Jesse, his face drained of all color, fell silent too, her words came in swells, pushed up from the deep and unthinkable. “How can we be lost if the cannery is right here and the apples look at all the apples! They knocked you over good! And the office we just left over there? How can we be lost when I’m at your side? And this man with the first aid is helping you plain as day? How can we be lost…” She looked away. Grey-black diesel from the trucks stained the cold blue sky, and from above her on the cannery roof exhaust fans spit the cloying smell of ripened fruit. Sarita waited for her breath to return, the waters to recede, the world to stop spinning.
“How can we be lost with the sirens so close—hear them? We’re not lost. We’re not lost, hijo. We’re not lost.” She looked down the road at the flashing lights and parting traffic. Suddenly, a path was cleared for her and she saw through the haze and the blame and the games. She smoothed back Jesse’s patch of black hair as the trucks moving out of the lot stopped for the approaching ambulance. “The road ahead,” she said softy, convincingly. “It’s all new.”
Bruce L. Makie was born and raised in Detroit, having spent the past thirty or so years living in Northern Michigan. He spent some ‘formative years’ doing what he says would probably get someone killed today—hitchhiking across North America and Mexico, riding the trains etc. Makie has had produced a one-act play and has received staged readings of others. His short-story collection, Fathers and Sons won the 2012 Michigan Writers’ Cooperative Press award for fiction.
5 Questions for Bruce L. Makie:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
BLM: In my day job with the Michigan Department of Human Services I’ve met people like Sarita, Jesse and Betty Wilcox.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
BLM: Hemingway. Chekhov. Raymond Carver. Kerouac. Kafka. Tennessee Williams. For starters.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
BLM: Almost anywhere, but once or so a week I’ll walk to a favorite pub or restaurant and if it’s not too quiet, or too loud, I’m fine. If the writing is bad at least the beer is almost always good.
TD: Do you hand write your work or go directly to the keyboard?
BLM: I usually work in longhand at the start.
TD: What book would you want with you on a desert island?
BLM: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, since I’ve never read them.