During a late afternoon P.E. class in fourth grade, my mother came looking for me on the playground in her leather boots that zipped to the knee. In those days she wore her brown hair in a short permanent wave that looked like a little cap of curls from far away. I remember seeing her standing on the foursquare courts between our shrill games and the parking lot. She claims she called my name and I ignored her. I don’t remember the events of the afternoon this way; however, my family had encountered a lot of bad luck that year, and I may have known, somewhere deep inside, that another blow was coming and I was doing my best to delay.
“We lost Colorscan,” she told me in the car. Mike was asleep in the front seat. A few months before his appendix had ruptured and he’d endured three different surgeries—one for each week he was in the hospital. He was five years old and I was nine. I rode across the bench in the backseat of her Mustang, head lolling on the cherry red pleather armrest. My stomach hurt.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We’re bankrupt.” Colorscan was the printing and color separation company my parents bought from my grandparents less than a year before.
We pulled into the rear parking lot that was empty except for my dad’s car. I threw up beside an old dumpster. It was a vivid shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.
My mother picked me up every day after school, and the three of us drove along the frontage road to the industrial park twenty minutes from our house to Colorscan. Each item, from the beige metal staplers to the printing presses the size of mac trucks and kept in an enormous warehouse-like room in the back of the plant, had to be priced and sold. My mother had a price gun that I wasn’t allowed to touch. She didn’t know what a lot of the equipment was or what it was used for, and had to guess how much it was worth.
Strange men who ran their own printing companies came during the afternoons to look over the items we were selling. One man who had a beard hung around a lot because he liked my mom. He helped her price some of the more unusual tools.
While my mom was sorting through the wreckage, my brother and I occupied ourselves. We were asked to stay in the nicer finished rooms in the front of the plant which consisted of a conference room, a long hallway of offices for the company executives, and a reception area divided in half by a wall with a cutout window—designed to separate the welcome couches with motel-like fixtures from where “the girls” sat. My father’s, or until recently my grandfather’s, office was the real beauty at the end of the hall: the entire rear wall appeared to be an aspen grove, but was actually tree wallpaper. “The girls,” or four patient Filipino women, sat in a primitive pre-cubicle area between reception and the production plant and were in charge of phones, orders, and accounts receivable. The rest of the offices in the front were musty, lightless rooms, which had been stripped of everything personal except for the 1970s nameplates which were plastic made to look like wood.
I spent a lot of time drawing in the conference room as one thing we had no shortage of was expensive, shiny paper. I brought colored Pentel pens and drew mermaids, which were my primary obsession at the time, and embarked on a few separate attempts to draw a beach—sand grain by sand grain. All of these efforts were abandoned before the plage had been successfully evoked. I ended up with several different sheets of paper with hundreds and hundreds of little black circles. Why I started over every time I got it in my head to draw a beach, I can’t say. I had no real talent for drawing; if I had, this would have undoubtedly been a time of great and profound discovery.
A television had been set up for my brother’s and my afternoon amusement in the waiting room at the end of the front hall. Although I’m sure I must have watched a lot of TV in those days, I remember only one afternoon when my brother and I were eating goldfish crackers on the sunken pea green couch. We found a dead rat beside the makeshift TV stand, which was actually an etching desk. I’m not sure why we bothered to tell my mother—there was no chance she was going to remove it—even she had reached the limit of what she was willing to suffer to get the company’s affairs in order. She told us not to touch it, something neither of us would have dreamed of doing anyway. When my father came later, I saw him carrying a big, flathead shovel. My mother was crying.
Like all color separation plants, Colorscan had a darkroom equipped with red fluorescent lights. To get to the darkroom a person had to pass through the black elevator which wasn’t really an elevator since it didn’t go up or down. It was two cylindrical revolving doors: one inner, which moved; one outer, which remained stationary and prevented the light from the outer rooms ruining negatives. This was where I spent most of my time. By leaning against the inner door and running in a circle, I could make the door spin really fast, and then when I let go it would spin on its own. Slices of light, alternately the yellow-beige light from the plant and the red light from the darkroom, would appear. I was terrified of the darkroom. My fear of it did not prevent me from playing in the elevator; instead, it raised the stakes of the game. Most of the time the elevator doors glided to a halt in front of the outer elevator’s blackness, but sometimes it stopped in front of the darkroom. When this happened I would make myself go inside and count to ten. I found this game to be deliriously fun, and quit only when I became too exhausted to continue.
My brother would play with me sometimes, but he did not have the same passion for the black elevator as I did. First, running around in a circle was exhausting. Second, the exercise could make any person vomitously dizzy. Third, it was a small, dark space that heated up very quickly. Mike humored me sometimes but mostly I played alone. Somehow, when I was inside, time seemed to move quickly, which is what I wanted more than anything. Outside the black elevator I was just killing hours, and I had to work to distract myself from the circumstances that held my family captive in the plant.
My fourth grade teachers were Miss Brunsting for homeroom and Mrs. Thamas for math. Miss Brunsting was a pretty brunette who wore very smart navy blue skirts and was in every way my ideal woman. We dissected a cow’s eye in class. We had a team trivia tournament. We went panning for gold—pebbles which had been spray painted gold—in San Francisquito Creek across the street from Oak Knoll Elementary School. For Mother’s Day we each wrote a haiku poem, and after we’d penciled in the letters on a white piece of cloth we went over them with embroidery thread.
Some make the case that junior high school begins in sixth or seventh grade, but I found that the problems that escalated in junior high school began in fourth grade—cliques, for example. It’s easy to forget how cutthroat kids’ social lives can be. I was not invited to Marianne Despres’s slumber party even though I was friendly with Marianne and the other popular girls in her set—including Lauren Brown who was new that year and my best friend.
Actually, there were some key differences between me and the more popular girls. I could be bossy, a real know-it-all. I lacked the subtlety and patience required to be adept at group politics. Also, I wasn’t friendly with any of the older boys (“older” meaning fifth and sixth graders at Hillview Middle School), and I did not go steady with Mark Nelson, who was the one socially acceptable boy to go steady with in fourth grade. His parents were divorced and he went surfing in Santa Cruz with his dad. He wore Vans and had long, blond hair that fell in his face. He considered himself a skater. Above all, he was cool because he was a year older than we were. He’d been held back a grade due to some reading-related learning disability—a little fact that provided a kind of go-to subject to tease him about whenever he called me Valerie Kidney. While I was desperately afraid this nickname would stick with the other kids in my class, I didn’t mind when Mark said it as I tried very hard to get his attention.
One lunch period Mark was playing handball against a wall with my group of friends. I was wearing a straight skirt I’d made out of my grandmother’s leftover upholstery material. The skirt was a greenish-gold color and decorated with a bamboo weave. It said “curtains” more than clothing. It was the first time I’d worn it to school, and I hadn’t allowed enough material around the legs of the skirt for running. In fact, to walk, I had to take small, short steps. While Mark and I were playing, the seam split up the side.
“You’re a hormone with legs,” he said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded both insulting and kind of sexy.
I punched him in the shoulder, which seemed the most appropriate response. Hormone with legs, I repeated to myself over and over. The words seemed to take on some magical significance in my mind. What they signified, I wasn’t exactly sure, but I came to believe Mark liked me.
The following week Lauren asked me why I was so mean to Mark.
“He says you always make fun of him,” she said.
I knew we teased each other, but I teased him because I really liked him. This seemed obvious to me, but I was glad that my crush had escaped her scrutiny.
Later that day Mark asked Miss Brunsting if he could talk to me alone. Mark and Miss Brunsting exchanged a look. My stomach fell.
It was late afternoon. I remember the two of us standing against the tan stucco wall outside homeroom, the sun on our faces. My palms were sweating. I was having a hard time swallowing. My tongue felt thick and unwieldy—more like a piece of meat than a tongue.
“I don’t know why you hate me so much,” he said.
“I don’t hate you,” I said.
“You think I’m stupid.” He started crying. I had never made a boy cry except my little brother who was much younger than I was.
I was at a total loss. How had my feelings been so misconstrued? I racked my brain for what I could have possibly done. I’d beat him in a pull-up contest. I’d hit him after the handball game the week before, but he’d laughed. I stood there, squinting at him, bewildered, until it dawned on me: I made fun of him for staying behind a grade.
As we stood next to each other, leaning against the wall, I realized that I would either have to act tough or I’d have to tell him that I liked him. The better part of me wanted to be honest. Yet if I told him I had a crush on him I’d lose face.
I decided to keep up the superior act.
“Why do you think I’m dumb?” he asked, sniffing. It was difficult to see him in pain and not offer consolation, but I couldn’t bring myself to confess my true feelings.
“Don’t take it personally,” I said and shrugged. This was a big phrase in fourth grade which nearly always preceded comments intended to be hurtful, and in fact nearly always preceded comments that were personal and honed-in on the specific area one was the most insecure about. Don’t take it personally, but you have really bad breath. Don’t take it personally, Mark, but I think you’re dumb. If I didn’t say the second half of the sentence, I might as well have. He avoided me altogether after that.
My parents started smoking. I’d wake up at night to get a drink of water and there would be a smoky haze hovering over the family room where my parents watched television after we went to bed. I found packs of cigarettes and threatened to throw them away. The concern I had for my parents, both for their health and their happiness, which seemed profoundly threatened by the collapse of the business and the strain it put on all our lives, was not well received.
“In this book I read,” I explained one morning, “The girl replaces her parents cigarettes with little rolled up pieces of notepaper that say things like ‘smoking kills’ and ‘causes lung cancer.’ What do you think of that?”
“Is that a threat?” my father asked, rolling his eyes.
“I don’t think that’s funny. We’re the parents; you’re the child.” My mom’s face was drawn in a deep disapproving line. “I won’t allow you to patronize me, understand?”
I didn’t know what patronize meant at the time, but all the same I understood what she meant.
On a spring evening, not long after the equinox, I went outside to pester my mother about what we were having for dinner. What we were having for dinner was the question I asked to initiate conversation with my parents throughout my childhood. It seemed important to manage my expectations surrounding what we were going to eat. Above all I hated the black bean chili my father made, and all kinds of soup—although this was not based on the actual flavors of the food, but more on the principle that dinner should be solid and not liquid. If we were going to have a soupy food I wanted to know early and possibly prepare myself a snack. Likewise, if we were going to have macaroni and cheese I would have the rest of the evening to look forward to it.
“I don’t know,” my mom said.
Dad would never say that. He always knew or at least had a few ideas of what we would have. He always thought about dinner like I did.
“What do you think we’re going to have?” I asked.
“Goddamn it, I don’t know.” My mother looked furious. She was in her shorts and flip flops, wrestling with the garden hose, and trying to water the long-neglected plants in the backyard. The night before I had heard my parents arguing in their room. We had taken out a second mortgage to help save Colorscan, and soon after it collapsed I learned our house was hanging in the balance.
“Are we going to lose the house?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother said.
“What do you think?” I asked.
My mother yanked on the hose. It was stuck in one of our many drought-resistant bushes. “Yes. I think we are.”
Later I asked my dad, not telling him what mom said. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I hope not.”
“Mom says we probably will.” In a strange way I was almost angry that Dad didn’t think we’d have to move. I wanted a consistent answer.
The equipment in Colorscan was slowly sold off. Every day there were fewer and fewer things. Stacks of paper disappeared, printing presses were purchased and picked up; someone bought the forklift. The man with the beard bought a lot of the little items—paperclip holders marked at seventy-five cents. Sometimes I asked if I could keep some of the things that were for sale and my mother reminded me that every penny we made was going to the house. I tried to avoid her whenever possible. I felt sorry for her, too, because I knew she was miserable.
The black elevator was one of the last items to go. By that time I was already immersed in my final project of fourth grade: the Mission Project. Each student in a class had to make a model of one of the California Missions. I chose Mission Santa Barbara because Barbara is my mother’s name.
Some of the kids in my class were able to visit the missions they were copying. A trip to Santa Barbara wasn’t in the cards for me. I had to build a model based on a color photograph I’d seen in my classroom. I knew it was white and had a courtyard. I found some white cardboard and constructed four buildings around the edge of a plywood platform, leaving a space in the middle for the courtyard. I was very happy that I managed to fit all four buildings and courtyard onto the base I’d dug up as it appeared, to my thinking, very proper that a model should sit on a platform. I did not have enough room for the grounds surrounding the mission, and there was no real distinction—at least in my representation—between the front and the rear.
I worked on the construction of the Mission Santa Barbara behind reception. I dug through the girls’ desks in pursuit of any items that could be used for coloring, decoration, or embellishment. There were lots of files marked with typewritten labels, half-used legal pads, scotch tape, scissors, staplers, ballpoint pens, and “while you were out” pink memo pads, but not a lot in the way of craft materials for my project. The photos of young Chinese, Filipino, and White children from drugstore photographers had been taken away along with the colorful calendars depicting house cats and horses. Every now and again I found a treasure: an old button saved from donating blood or a heart-shaped eraser.
When my mother was in the back selling off the pieces of our defunct company, I answered the line. During all other hours, my mother manned the phone. She’d given up on hiding her smoking from my brother and me, and while she talked she smoked her cigarettes. The cord on the remaining phone was exceptionally, almost unbelievably, long, and my mother paced the reception area—phone jammed in the crook of her neck. She’d stop now and again to lean against a desk and stand, bent at the waist, head down, arms crossed in front. While I worked on my mission, she talked to my father and her parents, she talked to the lawyers handling our bankruptcy case. She talked to what friends stood by her. The subject, the mood, was always the same. It was as if she were drowning in the ghost gray fog of smoke.
As the school year came to a close, the lawsuit over our bankruptcy gained momentum. My father had to appear so many times for his deposition that he lost the job he got after Colorscan shut down. His manager was tired of him missing work.
I was having some problems of my own. My nemesis and sometime-friend who lived across the street, Laura Gaul, was really getting on my nerves. Laura gave me my first taste of wicked fun: she convinced me that she was adopted, a lie she maintained for several days; she threw the sour tangerines from her yard over the fence into the next door neighbor’s yard; she told me that I’d best start thinking about what toys I’d leave her in case I accidentally died—a terrifying if extremely unlikely prospect. We were in a fight about something or other, or perhaps I was still reeling from finding out she wasn’t adopted, and I put her bike helmet in the trashcan at school. Laura was indignant when she discovered her helmet in the trash, and I was soon pegged as the culprit. Her mother, who had a deep, leathery tan, came over after school to confront my mother. They exchanged un-pleasantries on our front porch—Laura’s mother gesturing viciously at the helmet in question. Whether my mother was simply too exhausted to punish me, or felt that I’d suffered enough merely being friends with Laura, I’ll never know.
“Forget it,” she said. “I would have done the same thing.”
Still, I never really patched things up with Laura and she and her family moved to Texas that summer.
One night in May my parents sipped wine in our kitchen. The last of the day’s light was coming through the windows.
“If we win this lawsuit, let’s go to Hawaii,” my mother said.
“I’m getting a Porsche,” my dad said.
“How much can we win?” I asked. This was the first I’d heard of any potential upside to Colorscan closing.
“A million dollars,” my mother said, and a dreamy look on her face. “We can keep the house.”
More than anything I knew my mother didn’t want to lose the house.
“We can buy a mansion!” I said, thinking that winning the case would mean an upgrade. We could do better than keep the house.
Over the summer months we played the “what will we do with the money if we win?” game. My parents warned me that in all likelihood “winning” would mean covering the minimum expenses, but I preferred dreaming big. I imagined wearing Guess jeans to school every day of the week, moving to a house with a pool. Pools were the ultimate status symbol in my nine year old mind.
The night before the Mission Project was due, I “peopled” the place with miniature porcelain cats, dogs, and miscellanea my grandmother had given me from her collection. It was a mismatched menagerie of cardboard and collectables.
My mother drove me to school so I wouldn’t have to carry it on my bicycle. The moment I walked into Miss Brunsting’s class I knew I was in trouble. All the tables had been pushed along the perimeter of the room. The missions were lined up on top for all to see. Many were wood reproductions with Astroturf lawns, carefully popsicle-tiled roofs, even cellophane stained glass windows. They had doors that opened to wooden pews and hanging crucifixes, Indian cemeteries, granaries, wells, a lone pigeon stopping for a rest. They were beautiful and, above all, they looked like missions. They were way out of my league. What I thought had been the Mission Santa Barbara in my imagination became a few pieces of cardboard and a collection of junk. Worst of all was the realization that I had spent hours working on a miserable failure. I hadn’t guessed the competition would be so tough.
The kids in my class were not kind to me about the Mission Santa Barbara, which they pointed out—not incorrectly—was the work of a nine-year-old amateur. I was mad at myself for failing to notice its obvious shortcomings. Strangely I was most upset with my parents. Somehow everyone else’s parents understood they needed to help out. How did they not know? Why had they hung me out to dry?
I made it through the day. Not long after I arrived home, I confronted my mother.
“But it was your assignment,” she kept repeating, more bewildered than frustrated. She admitted that we didn’t have the money to buy expensive craft supplies—that even if she’d been asked to help she didn’t have time. “But that’s beside the point. It was your assignment. You’re supposed to be learning the state’s history, not me. I got enough to worry about.”
I learned one very valuable lesson from the Mission Santa Barbara debacle: Sometimes you can work really hard on something and it will still turn out like crap.
By the end of the school year, we were going to Colorscan infrequently. The building was sold to another company. The place was all but bare. Even the girls’ desks were gone. The last time my brother and I were there my mother said, “Take a look around because we’re not coming back.”
Mike and I waited for Mom on the couches in reception. Both of us realized that the place we’d been forced to make ourselves comfortable, to call our own, was actually a place we despised. As soon as we knew we weren’t coming back our real feelings re-emerged. We were both antsy to put the long afternoons we’d spent there behind us.
My whole family celebrated that night by eating a big dinner of Mexican food at a place called La Fortuna. I remember the jubilation, the palpable relief settling over us, knowing that we’d never have to return to Colorscan. The case dragged on for another few years. The court’s decision in our favor a few years later was an anticlimax.
Sometimes I think about the hours I spent spinning the black elevator, the grim excitement I felt as the inner door slowed to a halt and I waited to see where it would stop. The odds were that it would stop in front of either the black outer door or the brightly-lit production room next to the darkroom. I even tried to rig the game by starting and letting go of the door in certain places to insure that it skipped past the darkroom. But sometimes, no matter how hard I tried, it opened on those eerie red lights, and by my own rules I had to venture out of the elevator. During this time I learned another valuable lesson: there is some comfort in simply accepting the worst of all possible outcomes. I hated being in that room, but little by little I grew less afraid.
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