In the days before the Great Recession, before the real estate bubble burst, before our family’s economic woes began, and before the aberrant behavior of Papa, my mother would take me, her only daughter, to the farmer’s market. It hid in the shade along Route 101 where cars roared, unaware of the treasures outside their air conditioned cages. Mama pinched and smelled fresh fruits and vegetables and chatted with merchants and friends. Everyone called her the Empress. She knew where the best avocados were tucked away, how to pick the juiciest tomatoes and best tasting onions and garlic, and which jalapenos had just the right amount of heat.
At home, with my three brothers shooed away, we peeled and chopped and boiled, producing the best salsa in our small California valley. The few jars not claimed by regular customers were sold in a roadside stand at the end of our dirt driveway.
“Galena,” Papa would say, “for that price, you may as well give away your salsa. Bad times are coming, I feel it.”
“Abran, this is my salsa. I want everyone to enjoy it. You want that only the rich can afford it? You worry too much.” Mama’s voice took on a shrill tone.
“I work hard. I have an important job. I know what is happening in the world.” His voice penetrated the walls, vibrating the windows in their sills.
“Important. Pah! You work on the line. How important can you be?”
“I’m the foreman of my shift. You have no idea how hard I work.”
The two of them yelled, but in the same way she ruled over the market and her kitchen, she applied the right amount of heat with Papa. When I heard the door to their room click shut and the bed creak, I knew. The Empress had won again.
For dinner she placed half of a buttery avocado, bursting with sweet, green flavor, on each of our plates. As we bit into the delicate softness of the fruit, smothered in her salsa, she said, “Never waste good avocados. Smashing them, that is no way to eat them. It spoils the texture.” Mama never mashed avocados.
This was all before Papa lost his job in the canning factory, before we found a sign on the door.
It was a Friday, Papa’s day off. After a morning of haggling and gossiping in the late summer heat, Mama and I returned to the house and drove up the dusty driveway. Mama’s sharp cry when she saw the sign boldly declaring “Foreclosure” on our door was my first clue that our lives had changed forever.
Even as she leaped out of the car and rushed to grab the sign, even as I lifted heady smelling bags of tender avocados and ripe tomatoes from the back seat, a part of me listened for the pounding of Papa fixing the roof or the rattle of the boys raking gravel. Silence hung in the humid, hot air.
“Boys,” she called, her voice rising. “Abran. Where are you?”
Miguel, the oldest, opened the door. His head hung down and dark hair straggled over his eyes. Mama lifted his chin and brushed hair out of his face.
His voice quivered as he told of a man in a suit driving up in a big, cream-colored car. When he reached the part about Papa yelling at the man, about Papa telling the man to get the hell off his land, about Papa, dazed and crazy, walking down the dirt drive, Miguel’s eyes grew round and he hung his head. He swallowed, but could not continue.
Mama chased the boys away and insisted that we make salsa. Papa never came home that long afternoon, and by dinnertime, with the salsa finished and dark pebbly fruit sitting on the cutting board, Mama had disappeared. I found her in her room, clenching the sign as dusk settled over the valley.
The sign fluttered to the floor. I picked it up and dropped it again when a loud knock startled me. I glanced at Mama, who remained as if cast for eternity at the window.
I opened the front door, and dusky light spilled into the room. A deputy sheriff removed his hat. “Miss.” He glanced back at his car, up at the sky, and at my feet. “Is your mother home?”
She appeared like a ghost behind me, and her pale face said everything.
“Sorry, ma’am.” My chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe. He looked at Mama’s face. “Sorry,” he said again, rubbing one hand along the rim of his hat, “there was a terrible accident. He dashed into the road. A car…” I didn’t wait to hear the rest. I ran back into the house and huddled under the kitchen table.
“Accident, meh, that was no accident.” The house shook from her anger and despair as she stomped down the hall.
With eyes so red they hurt me to look at them, Mama reached for a knife. Feeling powerless and as empty as the darkness, I had an image of blood spewing from wrists and fingers, slashed and mutilated by her anger. I muffled a cry as she raised the knife and picked up one perfect pear-shaped avocado, the one I had picked out for her, the one that yielded tender under my touch. She cradled the fruit in one hand and whacked the knife down. It sliced through the tough skin, sinking deep into its soft flesh.
The pit, large and solid, had stopped the knife. I eased the knife and avocado out of her hands, ran the knife around the fruit, and pulled apart the two halves. Delicate yellow-green glistened.
There would be no more arguments, no more making up, and no more Empress. That night, Mama cruelly mashed the avocados.
Sue Babcock spent years and years as an engineer. Now mostly retired, she delights in writing stories, especially dark fantasy and of human failings, and she occasionally manages to get published. Sue is the managing editor at Silver Blade and the publisher of Liquid Imagination and Youth Imagination, and she is a Director and the webmaster of Silver Pen, which is a non-profit writers’ association.