I was never Peace Corps material but loads of people needed help right here in Houston so I signed on to help with Section 8, a program paying rent for poor people, and my first customer was this twenty-two-year-old woman struggling with an infant sucking its thumb, plus two toddlers, one riding her hip. They were ushered in by her forty-some-year-old mother, a huge woman who filled my office and towered over me, demanding, yes demanding that I help her daughter because she herself didn’t have room for them at her place and those grandbabies needed a home. I asked the young woman for her birth certificate. That’s when I saw the words, Little Hattie Harris. Your first name is Little? I asked. “Yes, Ma’am, I was named after Aunt Hattie,” and I can tell you it was all I could do not to turn to her mother and say, What were you thinking naming her Little? What kind of mother names her child Little or Apple; you know that’s just not right—rich or poor, kids deserve decent names.
After that I needed a walk in the park to eat my cheese and cucumber sandwich and I watched a crew sandblast the white skin off a house, grit thick as an Oklahoma sandstorm obscuring the landscape, and it took a whole week to get all that white off and show the pretty red brick house underneath, just like with me—everyone sees my white skin but inside I’m one-eighth Chicamauga Cherokee Indian and if anyone’s interested, it makes my Daddy proud to hear me say that. Movies mostly show Indians being savages, but that’s a bum rap because they were good smart people, like Luther Standing Bear saying thought comes before speech and believe me, we could use more of that around here. Or like Sequoyah inventing the Indian alphabet. And Geronimo wasn’t a savage either, just brave and fighting for his own, and once, me and my Daddy visited the place he was buried.
All kinds of folks work here, like Aurora is Mexican and makes the best-ever tamales in corn husks and offered to teach me, but I figured they were beyond my skill set so she taught me to make guacamole and said the secret was not putting tomatoes in it because real guacamole never has tomatoes. And Flora, the nice woman with the asthmatic son that can’t hardly breathe when the weather changes, taught me to make Louisiana Gumbo and said the secret was filé powder and never ever add tomatoes cause it should always be greenish black, so I guess for gumbo and guacamole tomatoes are fruita non grata. Cranberries too.
For the Thanksgiving pitch-in I took Grandma’s cranberry relish, and Beverly, my mean-spirited boss, tasted it and said it was sour even though it’s made with cherry Jello, but she never liked me anyway. After she said that, no one would taste it and really, what kind of people boycott cranberry relish? Miss Better-Than-You wore two-hundred-dollar silk blouses, knowing our clients are so poor they don’t have a place to live, and that just isn’t right. There was one time I almost liked her. She was meting out my daily reprimand and said, “I’m really scared,” which blew me away because she never said anything personal to me, but I asked her what of and she said her pee was red and she was afraid she would die and I felt sorry for her and asked, Are you taking red pills for a bladder infection, and she said, “Yes,” and I told her, When you take the last pill your pee will turn yellow again, and for a few days after that she was nice to me.
I tried to be nice to everyone but there was this one customer whose landlord refused our rent money because she trashed the place and it was so full of garbage she complained the roaches bit the babies’ faces at night, leaving welts. I didn’t know who to believe. The pictures were awful. The landlord wanted us to pay for damages, and during the whole time the customer kept glaring at my sign that says God helps those who help themselves and finally she stood up in a huff and said, “I’m moving to California cause they have better deals,” and I said, Go! Texas won’t miss you one bit, and she stomped out. Anyway, I’d been there two years and wondered what my Daddy would think about me taking that bullshit. I quit a few days later—not because of her exactly, but because another woman called just before Christmas crying hard. Couldn’t hardly talk. Said she came home from work and found all her stuff on the sidewalk; the landlord had locked her out and could we help her. And here’s the deal—even though I knew that was a terrible scary thing not having a place to live, I didn’t feel a thing, nothing at all, just thought Lady, sympathy is between shit and tough, and thinking like that just isn’t right.
grew up in Oklahoma but had the good fortune to live many places in the U.S. and abroad. She’s taught English, worked as an interviewer for the Houston Housing Authority, and worked for seventeen years as a lab technician. She currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.
Her work has appeared in journals, moonShine review, Main Street Rag, and Chiarascuro, as well as regional anthologies: Looking Back, Christmas Presence, Clothes Lines, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge, and It’s All Relative. She received a 2010 RAPG grant and served as the Henderson County rep for the NC Writers’ Network from 2010-2014. She also started a monthly community Literary Open Mic for regional writers that continues to be well attended. She was a Top Ten finalist for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize in 2013.