She has the chair kicked out from under her, the wood cracking a bit into splinters as the ferocious kick hits the weak point in the center of the leg sending Mary hurtling from her handiwork, spiraling backwards, her arms flailing, her hair spidering out in all directions, her mouth wide open, her eyes gleaming with fear and dismay and then in a second she hits the factory floor. She only wanted to do what was right. She just wanted to be Rosy the Riveter like so many other mothers, sisters, aunt etc of the time. She instead is spit on daily, slapped twice and now for the third time kicked out of her chair in Los Angeles with the arm band she was made to wear identifying her as Italian, enemy, other. A single long tear already is coalescing slow and slimy as she falls.
Mary Napolitano falls for the last time. She knows well enough when she is not wanted. She has that internal dark compass any caring human being has that ticks to a point of measure when enough is simply enough. The floor is surprisingly cold considering all the people here, the far distance to the ugly dirty windows and distant doors of the big aging warehouse. She sees 3 women she thought at first were friends, so kind and helpful when she started, one even giving her extra apples from her lunch when she saw she had in a hurry to help process scrap metal forgotten her lunch. Another gave her a slab of cheese. The third had even day one asked her about her husband and kids. Those same faces now glare down, sheets of fire of hatred, a venomous curl to a lip, a nose near steaming like a bull ready to pounce the stranger intruding in its pen. Mary is Italian American and it is WW2. She had been stunned to have to wear the arm band day three. It is to be worn at all times.
Mary Napolitano, born in a small farming town northeast of Naples in 1903 to poor farmers is no longer an Angeleno, no longer an immigrant that loves her neighbors, neighborhood and the life she has known as a mom in Compton of 2 young daughters. She is this body on the floor slowly rising up, dust all over her, a crowd barely giving her room to get up, a thing, dehumanized completely now by the fabric on her arm, by the logo someone made, by war and things thousands of miles from here and now. Mary sees knuckles go white on the hand that had given her cheese and encouragement now.
The family Napolitano saw the crops wither at the turn of the 20th century and it only worsened each season until desperation led to a huge decision. Mary’s father saw a broadside poster in town one day with an advertisement for work and good pay in Brazil. The drawing was bright and warm and the verbiage encouraging and promising comfort and support for families and plenty of work. Her father that day walked back and as he slept had a dream of full bellies, nice beds, tropical sun and him working away. He also dreamed of a snake curled onto a man’s face as a mustache, the man selling potions with absurd promises to children but this dream he chose to let first evaporate clean upon his waking.
Mary gets up slowly. The war drones on shores away on another continent. She is crying hard now but wishing she could just not be here.
“serves you right…spy…pig…” spit in her hair from the first face that had seemed friend once.
“you didn’t fool anybody…go now” glare from the woman who had opened a door once smiling.
“stay and will get worse” a voice from someone in the back, the voice sounding like her trainer.
Mary rises up and almost falls again as her foot gets caught on the leg of the knocked over chair. She wanted to, was happy to, …the sentence breaks here, the thought as well, there was so much she wished to do here, this here now venomous with hate and distrust. Mary slowly begins to stand again now, wipes her eyes, looks directly at nothing in particular, some random point in space to gather that this is all really happening. Her glasses are cracked now. She had her hair done over the weekend to maybe have something to talk to someone about, to share shampoo tips, to compare curlers, to also be strong and keep coming despite the last kick and fall. She feels something fall inside, like something just gives way, nothing vital but noticeable.
“go away….run…cry more…nobody cares” it is the one who gave apples now…eyes pure rage.
More come to gather around and watch. They are also mothers, wives, sisters, there to help out, give something. Some sit hanging off the bannisters of the stairs like upside down bats, others stand expressionless, spectacle drawing them close but with no emotional investment whatsoever. Mary feels a pain raging in her leg now.
1902 a few days after the dream, the family was on a steam ship to Brazil. They walked the whole way to shore with a few things packed away for the journey. The two sets of parents had a child each, Mary and John, they were too young to walk and were held the whole way. A brief heavy rain shower drenched the clan as they trekked narrow streets for hours and hours to some kind of unwritten future. The boat smelled bad and was overbooked with others like them, families in need, an unspoken sad bond between the crowds as the craft slowly left the port.
The boat would see starvation, rotten foods, a pungent heat of bodies together in transit that took lives daily despite the open seas in all directions. The journey would lose whole families and worse a child or parent with the errant random paths across the crowds of tornadoes in the plains. Mary was a baby and twice during the journey had a high fever and shivers, nearly adding a tick to the statistics, a number from a name.
Mary stands and stares at the crowd now, her eyes gazing warily at doors, windows, those now packed stairs. Part of her wants to stay, sit back in that chair, never ever leave this place, build whole planes from tin cans to show them all, camp out under the stairs at night to be first to start and last to leave. Part of her wants to sprint at full speed, run so fast she disappears, tricks atoms and gravity and opens a gash in space and time like the wound now pouring blood down her right leg. Most of her just wants the room to stop swirling in the chaos of something so bad it seems to break from the real for a time, endorphins rushing after a car skids off a cliff. Mary eyes the crowd now, steely as she wipes dust off her shirt she thought looked quite nice this morning as she woke early to do her best at that place.
The family arrived to Brazil to the snake oil salesman fate not the promise of that poster. It soon became 3 years of enforced labor at the pointed guns of guards, of picking coffee beans 10 hours a day for almost nothing. The housing was nothing more than wooden shacks so poorly designed that every breeze and its dirt and every rain came in freely between each board. Mary was a little one in a poorly constructed wooden crib. She was at the mercy of bugs and heat and hunger and once a snake that came in through an open door, a big fat hungry snake.
Mary walks a few feet and is blocked by that group that once welcomed her, they lock arms and mumble obscenities at her. It is 8:43 in South Central Los Angeles, outside is a warm sunny morning and the city coming to life. A block away someone is reading a paper having coffee. A block away someone is opening a brand new bottle of ice cold milk. 4 streets away kids are at a school reading while a young teacher explains about how electricity works. A continent away fog is roiling across a beach where in a few hours a battle will commence. A country away from that a nurse is holding the hand of a young man dying slowly from a wound. Above the earth the sun is shining as usual. Mary is none of those places, is tied to nothing but her kids, her husband, memories of Los Angeles and this moment right now.
She as a kid walked the streets of Compton and saw farms in back yards, played up the street where later they would build the high school. She later saw during prohibition the police officers up the hill of her street cut open barrels of illegal gin and beer, neighbors came out with glasses and filled them as the mini flood roared full of bubbles on down. “Just pour out the silt and sand” an older neighbor had once told her, laughing as the fluids neared and she got her big glass ready. She saw her cousin learn to ride a bike and then do tricks like a circus clown at the corner where later the car accident would have everyone talking. She saw families come from different parts of the world and then their kids grow up. She saw her neighbor Verda across the street become her best friend over decades and stay strong even after losing a child. No one at the scrap collection spot knew any of this of course. No one was to ever ask. She had a thing on her arm. She was not daughter, mother, wife or any stories, she was clothes and shoes and hair and something that happened to have a face, something of things read in newspapers, of those things happening far away in war.
Mary turns now away from the women blocking her path and thinks again about staying, about never leaving this place. Another bit of spit hits her on her cheek. The impact is arrows pointing her westward, to the door glinting in just enough sun of that day outside.
Back in 1902 in that wooden crib the snake had slithered up to that same cheek from outside the work areas and fields. The snake had made it up the edge of the crib and was about to begin to spiral around just below that cheek when her mother came in and let out a bloodcurdling scream. This sent her father rushing in with his machete. He saw the scene of a slow motion end to his child and in one motion killed the several foot long beast. In its belly something amazingly and horrifyingly was moving around.
His brother and another worker arrived and opened it up terrified it might be another’s child. It was a baby pig still alive. They raised it secretly, bred pigs also hidden away from the armed drunken guard’s and cruel plantation owner. \
Once they were almost discovered when the owner’s daughter, drunk on wine crashed her expensive third horse into a tree right outside.
“he will buy me another’ the young woman said waving them all away.
“Are you sure” asked Mary’s mother.
“Yeah…he is yours now’ the young woman said and just walked away.
They raised the horse and waited another year till payday when the guards got drunk and passed out at their posts and walked and took turns on the horse for 350 miles to the next big city and took another dangerous ship to America. They arrived at Ellis Island and worked on the transcontinental railroad and odd jobs on west ending up in South Central Los Angeles in 1905. They helped neighbors in need who helped them in return. Mary’s family worked in sweatshops for years until some pooled money and opened one of the first small shops in Compton while the others still toiled away. It was just what you did, what everyone did, help each other, scrape and get by.
Mary eyes the door and the light seems to gleam more now, molten somehow, honey and gold and magma all at once as she feels her legs begin to break into a sprint like when she raced beside her cousin as he learned to ride that bike, like when she ran home when that car hit him when the man was not looking, sun in his eyes he would claim, the car lurching past a stop sign and sending her cousin briefly skyward, his shirt fluttering like newly born wings for an instant above it all before crashing down, his young life snuffed out right then by a bumper and someone just not thinking about him, not at all, like the boy with bright eyes and freshly cut hair was not there, not just in that moment but almost never born at all.
I would have brought all of you apples if you ever asked.
Mary heads toward that door now, toward something else, toward home.