(this is one of a series of microfiction stories inspired by polaroids I’ve taken.)
My name is Graciela Rojas. I am nineteen years old. For nearly six months I have been working at the Farragut Family Farms fruit processing plant. We specialize in Pink Lady apples and Bartlett pears, but that doesn’t matter much. I am not writing this note for anyone in particular, except maybe an older version of myself who may read it one day and remember that the struggles are nothing new.
I spend my mornings sorting pears into different grades. The prettiest ones are hand packed and shipped all over the world. The ugly ones are culled and end up as juice or maybe baby food. After lunch I move over to the packing line where I wrap the best fruit in paper and pack it into fiber cartons. I get paid hourly for sorting and piecework for packing. When I’m broke I try to pick up more packing shifts but it’s much harder and wears me out.
Since high school ended this work has pretty much become my life. I look at the women here who are in their fifties and sixties, most of them family friends, and I have to wonder if it’s my destiny to be like them — faceless factory workers whose lives slowly dissolve among pallets, crates and conveyor belts. There are lots of photos from back in the day on the walls of the human resources office — black and white shots of young Mexican women standing in long rows beside endless streams of colorless fruit. Back then, they were all young and pretty. The first batch, they had no idea their fingers and minds would grow old here.
I lost five dollars to one of the girls my age. It was my first day and she put an apple in a bucket of water. She handed me a pear and bet me that I couldn’t make it float next to the apple. I didn’t know then that while apples float, pears always sink to the bottom. A five-dollar lesson. I’m guessing she lost the same bet on her first day.
Right now, I’m on a smoke break. I don’t smoke but nobody seems to care that instead I sit on the ground and write in my notebook. I’ve written lots of notes like this one, all pretty much the same. They distract me in a way that boys and church do not. I mostly throw them all away.
The shed in front of me is filled with boxes of apples but no pears. Apples give off some type of gas. You can’t really smell it, but it makes pears ripen up too fast, so the fruits have to be stored away from each other. These are the kinds of things I learn here.
My grandparents met during a walnut harvest here in Ukiah in 1944. My abuelo, Papa Lino, fled Los Angeles in disgust the year before, after the infamous ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ had left him with his life but only just barely. The way Papa Lino tells it, a bunch of sailors swarmed the barrio one night and beat up any well-dressed pachuco they could find. They found him, broke his arm and cracked his ribs. Once in a while if you ask, he’ll go into a suitcase at the back of his closet and bring out his black and red suit with its wide shoulders and narrow cuffs. He even still has the keychain that hangs from a pocket. Holding the suit in his lap, he’ll recall the dances and beauties of his youth.
I have a boyfriend, sort of. His name is Osvaldo and he’s going off to college next month. I don’t think he’ll come back. The college boys never do. They leave us girls with the kinds of guys we never imagined ourselves with. I’d love to go to a nice university, to study history or maybe become a teacher, but that will never happen for me. Osvaldo thinks I should move to a bigger city and try to go to community college but he doesn’t understand. Osvaldo is an apple. I’m a pear.
This place depresses me. Those faceless women have become faceless ghosts. They stand next to me on the line and make me feel like I’m already old. If I close my eyes, I can imagine my hands are all wrinkled. I know they’ll get like that some day, but I don’t want it to happen here.