Issue #138
Winter 2018-19

I remembered that morning because I woke up to such dark. It was my mother who woke me, came into my room, and said I could help earn a little extra money now.

She got me a job with her out at the hog farm. She was dressed in comfortable clothes, soft jogging clothes, and she threw an old pair at me, the same color as hers: blue. The blue was dark, not navy, darker than that, almost black. Then she dragged me by the arm, and I was standing on the front steps, waiting for her to lock up.

She handed me two soup cans, with the labels peeled off, and inside they were filled with uncooked rice. I never thought to ask what this all was for; I just went along with it, still groggy from sleep.


My mother drove us—me and herself—out to the hog farm. Driving was something she liked to do. She got her license, not long ago. She failed the test four times, but she kept going back until she passed.

She had bought the car from our neighbor. Their daughter was going off to college, and she was going some place far, so the girl couldn’t take her car with her. It was a bright orange, and shaped like a jelly bean. It seemed too much to me. It had tinted windows my mother didn’t need. We drove out there, quiet, no radio on, heading out into that dark, the car’s headlights leading us. I had the window down because I wanted the cold to wake me.

I didn’t know what kind of job my mother signed us up for, dressed alike at one in the morning. I had heard from a friend that there are always jobs at the hog farm, for those who can handle it. You can clean the shit from the floor, or clean their bodies when they are alive just before they put them out on the line. Or you can rub the male ones to get them excited to mate. I didn’t want that to be my job, and hoped my mother didn’t sign me up for anything like that. But a job is a job, and even with one like that, you could still have your dignity.


My first day on the job wasn’t a good one. I did everything wrong. What I was asked to do didn’t turn out to be so easy. That’s what it was.

My mother and I were the only women there. There were about fifteen men there, like us. We were what people called nice. I had seen these men before at the card parties my mother went to. She cooked meals with their wives in the kitchen. When we all sat down to eat, on those nights, everyone would talk about their work, their bosses, how hard it was back home, and told stories about how they all came to the country they live in now—but no one cried or talked sad, they all laughed. The sadder and more tragic it was, the louder the laughter. Always a competition. You try to one-up the person with an even more tragic story and a louder laugh. But no one was laughing here. Every face was serious.

Out on the field, my mother put on something like a headlamp. It was small, but the light was red and it freed up her hands. And she took that soup can with the rice in it. I followed her and did what she did. She got down, squatted, and crept along, pulling out the worms with her bare hands and putting them into two Styrofoam cups attached to her lower leg. Inside each Styrofoam cup there was a bit of grass so when the worms were put in there, they wouldn’t land so hard and could have a bit of cushion. In half an hour, she had gone back and forth four times and dumped her Styrofoam cup into a larger Styrofoam box next to which was a man keeping count of her harvest.

I was not very good with what I was doing. I didn’t stay bent down. Every time I picked, I stood back up, and by the time I got my fingers back to the ground, all the worms were gone. They heard me coming. So I stayed crouched along with my mother. I found a batch together and pulled at them. Only they did not come out smooth together, but in bits. I had pulled too hard and their bodies were broken.

I watched what my mother did. When she saw a batch, she pulled slowly and steadily, and then the worms would release the ground, go whole into her hand, and she’d fill her Styrofoam cup easily, all of them intact. I watched her reach into the soup can full of rice and she’d rub the tips of her fingers with it. It was how she kept her fingers dry after each pick. We were supposed to wear gloves, but my mother’s hands were bare. She said she had a better grip this way. The worms felt wet and soft and cold. And when they moved, I let them go or dropped them on the ground. I wanted to scream, to comment at how gross it all was, but I didn’t want to shame my mother in front of everyone. It was a job wanted by many, and I was lucky my mom got me in.


When we drove back home, still in the dark, my mother asked me if I liked the job. “That was fun, wasn’t it? Picking together like that,” she said.

She said, “You didn’t do so good on your first day, huh?” I had picked only two cups compared with my mother’s fifty. “Next time. Next time you’ll get more. Everyone does bad on their first day.” I thought of my father then, what he would think of us doing this now, picking worms. What he would say. I can hardly remember his face or see it in my mind. My father was a good man. No one who knew him had a bad thing to say about him. He died early in my life. I don’t remember him so well, except that he used to call me Ugly. My mother said he called me that so my looks wouldn’t get to my head. She said the time for thinking about looks was after you get educated and work a good job. Then looks, if they’re any good, are worth something to you. But you couldn’t do it the other way around.

I wondered if my mother would marry again. Most of the people we knew were married or had someone. It seemed to me she was lonely and sad, listening to her Elvis tapes late at night in her room. “What do you want me to do? Get one of them white guys? Can you imagine. They probably will want me to say things like ‘Me lope you long tie’ and pump me like one of them hogs. I got my pride and I ain’t lowering it for no man. I rather be alone.”


You could say I was spoiled. I never had a job before, but I was fourteen, getting to be at that age where it cost my mother money to have me around. I got good grades, and so she had this idea that I might some day get to go to college.

She herself had never been, back in her country. She had seen school girls in their white collared shirts and navy-blue skirts walking to school, while she sat and watched, looking after chickens in her yard. She was responsible for chasing the chickens all back to her property. It wasn’t a hard job and there was no money in it for her; it was just something her family needed done.

“I was a peasant girl. You don’t know about that. I wanted to be wearing one of them navy-blue skirts and white collared shirts, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me. Not in my lifetime. But it’s going to happen for you. You’re going to be one of them navy-blue-skirt-white-collared-shirt-wearing girls going to school. I might not have been one myself, but I brought someone into the world who will be. I sure can be proud of that.” I didn’t want to tell my mother they don’t wear uniforms in college. I wanted her to have her dreams.


Every Saturday night, we went back to that hog farm and picked those worms. I got to be real good, but not like my mother. She really was a natural if there ever was one. She didn’t pick like the others. She took off her shoes and went barefoot. She said, “I don’t like them rubber shoes. I know they can hear me coming. My feet don’t make noise at all. It’s natural.” When I got tired, she told me to take a break.

I went to sit in the car and watched her out there in the field. She even got to turning off her headlamp. She felt her way through the line. She knew where the worms were without having to see them, picking blind, and bringing them back in large numbers. You wouldn’t know it, just watching, it was worms everyone was picking. From this distance, it looked like some rich woman had lost her diamond ring and everyone was ordered out there searching for it. My mother called the worms shit of the earth. She would always say, “Man, I love shit of the earth,” after every pick we did.

Anytime I got any time alone, I got thinking of my father. Children aren’t supposed to remember things at two. But I did. We were refugees, and all we wanted was to live. I try not to think of him like that, or what happened. To put it into words is to bring back what happened. He was there, head above the water, pushing me and my mother across, and then suddenly I looked over and saw his head go under. He had come back up once more, and his mouth opened, once it opened, with no sound, and he went under. I couldn’t swim and my mother couldn’t either. But she somehow managed to steer us across, holding on to a rubber tire. Afterward, my mother asked me if I saw what happened to my father, and I said I didn’t. I didn’t want her to know. Now I like to believe he ended up somewhere in Malaysia. Maybe. That he had lost his memory and was living with a new family. Just to know he was living, that’s good enough for me. The last sound he made living. It wasn’t a sound, even.


I didn’t want to go to the school dance. But my mother insisted. She said I shouldn’t miss out on things in life. I knew it was a big deal for her. She made me a pink bubbly dress, and I tried it on for her to get the fit right.

Some guy at school asked her if he could take me. She adored him because he looked a little bit like Elvis. James was his name. I thought he was all right, I guess. He sat next to me in the classes we had together. I didn’t understand why. There were other seats. He drew helicopters on the corner of my notebooks. When I asked why he went and did that for, he said, “So we can fly away together.” I erased or crossed them out. When it rained outside, he would turn to me and tell me, “It’s raining,” as if it was an important thing in his life, to see that it rained and to tell someone about it.

He was around me a lot because we were paired together for this parenting unit in Family Studies. I didn’t want to be anyone’s partner. I wanted to raise the egg we were given, to represent a child, on my own, but James said, “I’m not going to let you raise one alone.” I didn’t turn him down, because we got more points that way, working with someone. It was fine with me. It was just an egg to me, and that’s all it was.

When James came over to work on the assignment after school, he talked to my mother, using the titles of Elvis songs to say what he meant. “Return to Sender,” when he saw a pile of mail on the table, “Don’t be Cruel” whenever I said anything to him, and “A Little Less Conversation” when my mother asked him what his intentions were. She adored him. I didn’t want her to get too attached to him. I didn’t want him to break her heart. I tried to get James to quit our project. I was careless with the egg and dropped it on the floor, the few hours I had alone with it. After that, I thought he’d quit on me and the project but he said, “It was an accident. Things like that happen in life.”

Still, I didn’t want James to be so nice to me. I showed him my worm-picking outfit, with the slime stains on it, but he didn’t find that disgusting at all. He said, “That’s awesome! I sure wish you’d take me out to do that sometime.” I never heard of such a thing. Someone who actually wanted to pick worms other than my mother.

I wanted him to know that it wasn’t awesome at all. I wanted him to see that it was hard work and you needed real skill to be a good picker. James was so good at things, I wanted to see him fail at something. I wanted to see him struggle to fill a box, to step on the worms because he didn’t know where to look for them, to pull too hard and have their bodies break apart. I wanted him to be yelled at when the count was low, and for him to experience the uncertainty of weather.

When it was one in the morning, James was already up, having coffee with my mother in the kitchen. He wore jeans and a plain blue T-shirt. We gave him the can with the rice in it and he said, “Cool. I’m so excited!”

We drove out to the farm and he leaped out of the car. My mom told the farmer that this boy wanted to come along, that he didn’t have to worry about pay because he’d work for free. The farmer liked the idea. He said, “C’mon now. Let’s see what you can do.”

James wore the little light on his head and started like the rest of us, but it turned out he had something that none of us had. He picked with enthusiasm.

The men who worked in this field had been doctors, teachers, farmers with their own land, like my mom was, back in Laos. None had set out for a life crouched down in the soft earth, picking for faceless things in the night, this shit of the earth. And they picked like it. James had never been anything else but a kid. James picked like a man who was free.

Not soon after this, James, at fourteen, became our manager. The man who owned the business said he wanted someone else to take over for him, and since James spoke English so well, he could have the job. He was so impressed that James had been willing to work for free the first few times. Said he was an example to all of us, this working for free.

I looked over at my mother’s face to see what she thought, but I couldn’t tell anything because it was so dark. I knew what had happened to James was something she wished for herself. She loved this job and she had been at this for longer than James, but no one had noticed her work at all. And James? He was happy to have a job that paid so well. He didn’t question if he deserved the job or not. He was fourteen and he was boss.


Now, my mother had some things to say about James and his new job on our drives home. It all came out then. She said, “That was nice, wasn’t it? I brought that fucker. And he takes my job. Fuck. He’s a fucking kid. What the fuck. And they accuse us of taking their jobs. Well, you know what? That was my job. My job! And he fucking took it. He doesn’t even need the money. What’s he going to buy with it that his parents can’t get for him? I’ve got someone to raise. And why am I so pissed? It’s just shit of the earth. Shit of the earth.”

James started to change the way we picked. I watched her heart break. I watched her slowly give up on being great at what she did. He said rice was something you ate, that it wasn’t something to waste. The cans which had been filled with rice were replaced with sawdust. My mother got splinters drying her hands with it. They got infected from the fertilizer in the soil and kept the sores around longer than they should have been. Because of these small changes, the harvest numbers fell. There was always someone waiting, willing to do the work.

Then James told my mother she couldn’t go barefoot anymore. She now had to wear the whole gear. He said, “That’s the equipment. You have to wear it.” And so she did, and her harvest numbers fell too.

To make up for the lower numbers, she stayed out on the field longer than she would have. She began to forget the things she did so well. She didn’t move with the ease she had before and the worms all slunk back into the ground. It wasn’t something she could control, but the numbers didn’t give out that kind of detail. They could be used to say the picker was unskilled or lazy. Those things, I knew my mother was not.


Although it had only been weeks, it felt like a lifetime ago. So much had changed and had become confusing to me. I knew James as boss out at the farm, and I knew James the fourteen-year-old boy I went to school with. They seemed like different people. When I was at work with him, I waited for his newfound coldness to turn into something else, the way one can wait to be loved, to be recognized as someone to be loved. I didn’t look at that face too long, because I didn’t like what I saw.

The night of the dance, my mother had laid out the pink dress on my bed. I was supposed to wear this thing. She wasn’t home when he came. She had gone out to a card party. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, how to live your life. You go on now, if you want to go with him to that school dance. But I don’t want to be here when he gets here. You know how I feel about it. I can’t be nice about it all. It’s just not in me. But you, you’ve got a chance in this life. Pick those worms and get out of this town. Be nice.”

James arrived alone. He was dressed in a black tuxedo, hair slicked back, and black shoes that clicked on the cement. He had, in his hand, a pink thing that flopped. A flower.

Before he came up to the house, I had turned out all the lights. It looked like no one was home. The streetlamp was like a spotlight. I could see the front lawn and when he walked there, I could see his whole face. It was small at first and then it got bigger. His forehead loomed closer.

When I did not open the door, he banged and struggled to turn the locked knob. His hair had come loose. It was wild and undone. I saw it all, standing on the other side of the door, in the dark, watching him in the golden circle framed by the peephole. I did nothing. Not even when I heard him sob. I did not look back inside the peephole. I put a finger up to the peephole and held it there. I did not want him to see my open eye.