"The thing that bothered me most was that I didn’t have a dad; that bothered me a lot. I remember going to my friend’s house after school and her dad coming home and meeting her and hugging her, and I’d feel real crappy about that.” The woman, Grace Stevenson, 41 years old, almost 42, mother of three, now single, is speaking in a soft, determined voice. She’s a petite, barrel-chested woman with short auburn hair, round face, shimmering brown eyes.
And this is Brawley, California, one of the last funk desert towns left to Imperial Valley. It’s late afternoon, still hot, still building heat, jet-exhaust heat, impossibly hot, hot like a bad thing is going to happen.
One blows into town for no reason. You’re taking a few days for a drive-around, a get out of San Diego drive-around, and you’ve been in your van all day sweating from places you didn’t realize pumped sweat, and you want a break from the wheel and the bad music and the bullying heat. You feel lonely. What’s required is some small talk, just a chit and a chat, something to help you out from underneath your own head.
So you find city center, stop, walk around. It could be a laundromat, a bar, a library, a church picnic, or sitting on a bench underneath a tree in the town park, but next to you is a nice lady. You look over and there’s nothing sexual there. Just a nice lady and all you want is a smile, a morsel of palaver.
And so you say hello and say that you’ve always liked small towns like this, towns with old ratty buildings and pick-up trucks. And then, the woman begins to talk and you realize that evil has come, and your stomach tightens and you remember that evil does live in the world, something that’s slipped to the back of your mind after riding a steady paycheck for a few years.
The evil brought me to a second-story apartment on the north side of Brawley. Grace Stevenson and I sit around a white oval Formica table set between her kitchen and living room. A large TV plays. Grace’s 19-year-old daughter Patricia is in and out, pouring pop, fixing a sandwich, back again for more pop, back again to deposit dishes in the sink.
I gratefully accept a soft drink, ask Grace where she was born.
“I was born in Blythe, California, August 9, 1951. I had one brother and one half-sister. My brother was a year older, and my sister is 12 years younger.”
“What were your parents doing when you were born?”
“They were field workers for one of the farms out there, Palo Verde. My mom was 20 and my dad was 27. They were getting a divorce when I was born.”
Grace slowly rolls her head, shrugs her shoulders. “My roots are pure Mexican. My mom was the first American born on her side of the family. On my dad’s side, my brother and I were the first American-born. My dad’s still not a citizen. He’s worked in the United States, has pretty much all my life, and is now retired from Foremost Dairy in L.A.”
The air conditioner kicks in with a thump. “What was your first memory?”
“I was 18 months.”
“What did you see?”
“The kitchen in my grandfather’s house. Green curtains, tables by the door heading toward the living room. The refrigerator was on the right-hand side, there was a counter in front. Over towards the corner was the stove and then the sink. I was on my grandfather’s lap sharing a Lucky Lager beer,” Grace laughs. “He used to come home from work and like clockwork drink two beers before dinner.”
“You said your parents were getting a divorce?”
“My parents were getting divorced while my mom was carrying me. My father divorced my mom, joined the service, and after he got out he went up to L.A. That’s when she got into being what you call a ‘fruit tramp’ working in the packing sheds instead of the field.”
The television is turned off. A young boy gets up from the living room floor, walks into one of the bedrooms, closes the door. Grace gazes at her hands. “When you’re a fruit tramp, you build a reputation. My mom was a fast packer, and she was a clean packer. You got boxes, one layer or three layers. Everybody can pack the top layer so it’s pretty, but the bottom layer, if it’s dirty, people will complain when you deliver it. My mom was fast, and she was good. She packed cantaloupe, tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus.
“My half-sister came along when I was 12, and my mom was working as a secretary. She wasn’t always a fruit tramp, she tried to get out of it, but there was never enough money anyplace else. There were times when we were left with a neighbor or a relative, and after a while it became necessary for us not to be moved from school to school. There were times when we stayed with other people; there were times when we went with her. When she’d go, she’d be gone three months. My mom was a very spontaneous person. She was neat.”
“Where did you live from the ages of six to eight?”
“Lived at my grandfather’s house, on Vine Street here in Brawley. I was eight years old when we moved over to the west side of town. Started school at Witter, first grade.”
“How did you like school?”
“I liked it, I liked it a lot. The teacher was great. I can’t remember her name, but I remember how pretty she was, had nice black hair. There was a boy named Monk Henley, we both had a crush on each other. We were her pets, the teacher’s pets. And on the last day of school I went to kiss the teacher on one side, and he went to kiss her on the other side, and we ended up kissing each other. We both just about died! I ran home, we never even said good-bye.