Mangoes from Mexico
I stared, inexplicably, for half a second at her slimy black nipple, the baby’s face nuzzling back and forth across her golden brown breast, searching for it at a sideways angle.
“Do you have any kids?” she asked, curiously.
“No,” I shuddered at the thought. What a cruel, bleak world to raise a child in. Her baby was cute though. Curly haired and quiet, bundled up in the tiniest jacket and pants I’d ever seen. She came in without a bag for him. I wondered if he had diapers at home, or food. Or whether he even had a bed. I continued typing as I asked her the routine series of questions that accompanied the application.
“Are you a victim of domestic violence?”
“My husband is dead,” Penelope replied.
“Can you read and write in English?”
“I can read.”
“Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“The women’s shelter.”
I shifted in my chair. The rain pounded hard on the sidewalk outside my office window. Bowed heads trudged by, water pouring from umbrellas and the hoods of jackets. A single, sheltered plant drooped on the radiator next to my window sill. The edges of its leaves were yellowed. It would probably wish to be on the other side of the glass, if it knew any better.
I remember having dinner with Jose when he told me the story of his family, crossing the border for Mexico when he was just a little boy. He held his mother’s hand in his right, and a stuffed toy in the left. I pictured him wearing tiny blue jeans and a tattered t-shirt, watching his father’s back as he navigated the dark night in front of them. Now he was retired from the Army, and he retired at a higher rank than I did. Americans didn’t appreciate the tenacity of people like Jose and Penelope.
In Mexico, Penelope worked several jobs, she told me. During the mornings, she picked mangoes for her brother’s roadside stand. She hauled her basket, marbled with greens, yellows, and reds, two miles to be sold, or rot. Her baby came with her. When he ate, she ate mangoes. She was thin and her sun-kissed skin was darker around her hands and face. When she went into the city to prepare meals at the public school, her baby came with her there too. The other women in the kitchen adored him, because he was brand new. Leaving Mexico meant leaving the security of family behind.
I remember Jose had laughed when he told me stories about growing up illegal in the states. I knew there wasn’t so much to laugh about, then. His mother and father were lucky to have flown under the radar until Jose was old enough to apply for their citizenship. His family beat the odds in staying together, and making it by, for twelve long years before then. I was born here, and met Jose when we were in the Army together. His immigration story tore my heart apart when I heard it. I hated to picture my dear friend suffering in silence, and in hiding most of his life. This was America, the freest country on Earth.
“Is there anyone here that will help you get by?” My question was routine, but not one I was reading from the screen.
“I only know you, now,” she said, looking at me with a sad smile. She pulled a mango from her pocket, and set it on my desk.