Memory Three: The Cigarette Shack

One more chore was added to our list. Anna and I were required to work in Chris’s cigarette shack on the weekends. It was a 12ft x 12ft shack made out of plywood, next to I-10 at the Banning pass. Chris’s cigarette shack sat like a discarded shoebox on the dusty side of Hadley’s Fruit Orchard.

The fast pace handling of people on their way to vacation in Palm Springs created a barely manageable, but fun level of chaos. It was in that shack that my deficient math skills really came to light. I was terrible at giving back correct change, which resulted in tourists buying a whole lot of cigarettes at a bargain price.

We worked up to 10 hours a day, serving individuals and large groups of people who came by bus from all over the country to see the desert, and buy tax-free cigarettes. We didn’t mind the work, as it gave us a chance to have contact and socialize with people, if for only as long as a transaction lasted

Mom stayed with us when we worked in the shack because she was afraid someone would run off with Anna and me. It also offered the three of us a chance to spend time together and talk without Chris around.

Mom grew increasingly distracted and somber, I could see she was becoming disillusioned with Chris and the fact that, he wasn’t her knight in shining armor.

I had seen this face many times before, and knew it was a precursor to another move. She asked if Anna and me if we were happy? We both replied, “We hate it here, Chris is mean, the kids on the reservation hate us and we hope to leave before he has a chance to really hurt us.” Mom knew what that meant.

I told her that we weren’t going to school, that we just hid down near the dogs, avoiding the school bus.

Mom started crying and whispering an apology to us. She said, “I know I have been a terrible mother. I’m sorry that I dragged you both into this horrible family.” She wiped her eyes and then said, “I don’t know what to do. Chris wants to get married. What should I do?” I immediately said “NO! You can’t marry him!”

Mom sat on a crate crying, I was so familiar with her cries, the way she blew her nose only using her right hand, and the residue the Kleenex left behind on her cheeks and eyelashes.

It struck me that she had the same cry for everything. It didn’t matter if she was crying because she was over weight, if a boyfriend left her, or if we didn’t have enough money to live off.
It was always the same cry, same intensity, same words of despair and self-deprecation, punctuated by more crying, blowing and wiping.

Her tears traveled the same route, with the same speed each and every time. I just watched them fall from her eyes, down the ravine that had been carved into her cheeks from all the other tears that had come before.

My mother was physically stunning—movie star beautiful. I knew she had a freakishly high IQ, although, it was always lost on me in light of the repeatedly bad choices she made.

Mom had been raised in an orphanage home in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of her early childhood consisted of regular beatings and being locked in dark closets. As a matter of fact a dark closet is where she woke up once after being held under a water-filled bathtub by one of her caretakers. Mom told me, “She crossed over and met her guardian angel, who folded her wings around her, gave her a hug and told her she had to go back.”

While mom continued to cry and apologize, Anna hugged her. I decided I had had enough and tried convincing her that she didn’t need to put up with Chris or people like Chris. She just needed to decide that she wanted a different life, make that her final decision and then stick to it.

She stopped blowing her nose and crying…she actually took a few moments to just look at me, and it was as though she was meeting me for the first time. She said, “How do you know so much and you are only 12 years old?” I said “ I don’t know very much, I don’t think you have to be smart to know that if you change the way you do things, for example the bad men you choose, you will get different results. It’s just common sense.” I didn’t add that I had read it in one of her self-help books.

Mom looked scared, confused and uncertain of how to get us out of the current mess we had been living in for the past 8 months.

I looked at Anna and Mom and asked, “Are we done here?” Mom said, “Yes.” I asked if we could go back to San Francisco, she replied, “I don’t have enough money to make that drive and pay for a place to live”. She was right and I said “Then let’s go to Palm Springs it will be easier to make a plan from here and find some where to live, we shouldn’t just leave in the middle of the night without anywhere to go”.

In between busloads of tourists we spoke in low whispers working out the plan and excuse we were going to use to get enough time away from Chris and to slowly start removing our things and make our move to Palm Springs.

I was scared, but I didn’t tell mom or Anna, because I didn’t want them to be scared. I was concerned if Chris figured out what we were up to, we would never be heard from again. But our spirits were raised by the prospect of being released from what felt like hell on earth.

The last busload of tourist came and went. The sun had already disappeared over the mountains. It was getting cold and I was sunburned and covered in a layer of dust from the day. I heard the sound of Chris’s truck making it’s way across Hadley’s parking lot, I reminded Anna and mom not to act happy or light or he would know we were up to something.

Before Chris drew any closer, I took mom by the hand and said “You are not going to change your mind, right? If we stay here, Anna and I are not going to make it, do you understand?” She hesitated, then slowly and quietly replied, “I promise, I won’t change my mind.”