Gary Soto’s “Looking for Work”
Gary Soto is a professor of English at UC Berkeley. He grew up in Fresno, California and has published several volumes of poetry as well as essays and prose memoirs. “Looking for Work” appeared in Living up the Street: arrative Recollections (1985).
One July, while killing ants on the kitchen sink with a rolled newspaper, I had a nine-year-old’s vision of wealth that would save us from ourselves. For weeks I had drunk Kool-Aid and watched morning reruns of Father Knows Best, whose family was so uncomplicated in its routine that I very much wanted to imitate it. The first step was to get my brother and sister to wear shoes at dinner.
“Come on, Rick – come ...view middle of the document...
She sized me up and then asked what I could do.
“Rake leaves,” I answered smiling.
“It’s summer, and there ain’t no leaves,” she countered. Her face was pinched with lines; fat jiggled under her chin. She pointed to the lawn, then the flower bed, and said: “You see any leaves there – or there?” I followed her pointing arm, stupidly. But she had a job for me and that was to get her a Coke at the liquor store. She gave me twenty cents, and after ditching my rake in a bush, off I ran. I returned with an unbagged Pepsi, for which she thanked me and gave me a nickel from her apron.
I skipped off her porch, fetched my rake, and crossed the street to the next block where Mrs. Moore, mother of Earl the retarded man, let me weed a flower bed. She handed me a trowel and for a good part of the morning my fingers dipped into the moist dirt, ripping up runners of Bermuda grass. Worms surfaced in my search for deep roots, and I cut them in halves, tossing them to Mrs. Moore’s cat, who pawed them playfully as they dried in the sun. I made out Earl, whose face was pressed to the back window of the house, and although he was calling to me I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Embarrassed, I worked without looking up, but I imagined his contorted mouth and ring of keys attached to his belt – keys that jingled with each palsied step. He scared me and I worked quickly to finish the flower bed. When I did finish Mrs. Moore gave me a
quarter and two peaches from her tree, which I washed there but ate in the alley behind my house.
I was sucking on the second one, a bit of juice staining the front of my T-shirt, when Little John, my best friend, came walking down the alley with a baseball bat over his shoulder, knocking over trash cans as he made his way toward me.
Little John and I went to St. John’s Catholic School, where we sat among the “stupids.” Miss Marino, our teacher, alternated the rows of good students with the bad, hoping that by sitting side-by-side with the bright students the stupids might become more intelligent, as though intelligence were contagious. But we didn’t progress as she had hoped. She grew frustrated when one day, while dismissing class for recess, Little John couldn’t get up because his arms were stuck in the slates of the chair’s backrest. She scolded us with a shaking finger when we knocked over the globe, denting the already troubled Africa. She muttered curses when Leroy White, a real stupid but a great softball player with the gift to hit to all fields, openly chewed his host when he made his First Communion; his hands swung at his sides as he returned to the pew looking around with a big smile.
Little John asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was taking a break from work, as I sat comfortably among high weeds. He wanted to join me, but I reminded him that the last time he’d gone door-to-door asking for work his mother had whipped him. I was with him when his mother, a New Jersey Italian who could rise...