by Dustin Hodge

During the summers of elementary school, my mother and I sold tomatoes. She worked the night shift at an electrical manufacturing factory, got home early in the morning, slept for a couple of hours, and then cleaned houses while I weeded, watered, and picked tomatoes.  

When my mom got home, she would walk row by row, picking the tomatoes too high for me. She was tall and thin, strong from a lifetime of physical labor. Her brown hair floated in the wind. Before we moved to the farm in central Texas, I used to pick wildflowers that she would braid into her hair. Now neither of us had time for such trivial things. She weaved between the rows of giant plants, and with her long steady fingers, she plucked each tomato, making sure not to bruise it as she placed them in a 5-gallon bucket. The stems of the plants overflowed out the top of their six-foot-tall metal cages.

We boxed up the best tomatoes and sold them to local restaurants. Every day we’d deliver a few hundred pounds; even though my mom was thin, she easily lugged 50-pound boxes to her car. 

She drove a faded blue AMC Pacer. The fabric seats were torn, and all the vinyl had huge cracks from the Texas heat. Over the years, other people’s lives had spilled down into the car’s every rip and crevice. Her castoff vehicle was like everything else she owned—worn to the bone.  

My mom only bought things that were tattered and purchased in quantities per dollar— five shirts or twenty paperback books. The more you needed to count each penny, the longer things needed to last.  

After we dropped the tomatoes off, sometimes the car wouldn’t start again, so we would sit and wait in a restaurant parking lot. She would put her hands on top of mine, her slender fingers warm and comforting, and she’d say, “tell me a story.” She would close her eyes and listen as I made up stories about ninjas and Vikings.  

And just like that car, my mom sometimes needed a break, so I wouldn’t stop talking until she opened her eyes again and the car started. Sometimes she napped for an hour, and I kept talking as the car heated up. Sweat from my body seeped into the fabric seats, and my legs stuck to the vinyl. I told my mom everything: jokes, my dreams, and my fears. I didn’t keep anything secret.  

I hoped that if my mom got a little bit of rest, she would be safe at her job and that if I kept talking, I could help protect her. My mom stood at a giant hydraulic press for her entire eight-hour shift. A rectangular metal outlet box would tumble down the assembly line, my mom would stomp on a foot pedal, and the heavy press would slam down on the box, putting two indents into the metal. Then my mother would grab the box, turn it, clear her hands, and hit the foot pedal again. She would do this for three sides of each rectangle.

SLAM. Flip. SLAM. Flip. SLAM. Flip.  

She had to meet an hourly quota or be fired. 

A lot of her coworkers were missing fingers. For a split second, they’d lose focus, and the press crashed down—mangling and severing fingers. 

As I sat in that hot car, telling her stories, I wondered if that would be the last time my mom would be able to hold my hand. 

When the car eventually started, we’d cheer. Sometimes to celebrate, we’d stop at a gas station. She would stay in the running vehicle while I’d go into the store, buy two Cokes in glass bottles, a bag of salted peanuts, and a pack of cigarettes, always with exact change.  

Mom taught me how to ask for the correct cigarettes. It was like reciting the alphabet “ella-minnow-pee,” the way you sing it before you even know what it means. I’d ask for her cigarettes in a similar sing-song fashion—“Virginia-slims (slight pause) menthol-light (slight pause) ultra-100s.” 

As we poured the salted peanuts into the cold coke bottles, the soda bubbled and fizzed—the sound of the warm Texas wind came in from the open windows mixed with our laughter on the drive home. Then, finally, mom would drop me back at our empty trailer and then go directly to the factory. 

We lived on a dirt road with no other houses in sight, and my parents never attended any school activities or sporting events. We never went to church. It seemed like we were separated from the rest of the community. 

Then the police started showing up at the house. I don’t know how they knew to show up, but every time they showed up, my mother needed them to. 

One day at school, my best friend asked if I was ok. His dad was a volunteer firefighter, and the night before, he’d heard on the police scanner that officers had come to our house for a domestic disturbance...again.

In a small town, you can be secretive, but you can’t have secrets. 


I was thirteen when I found out I had a brother. I confronted my mother; I was angry and almost as tall as she was. 

“Why did you never tell me,” I asked. 

She began crying. I learned my dad had dropped out of school to work out of state. Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant. Then she tried to kill herself. 

She was fifteen. 

My grandmother said she had to leave town, have the baby, and give it up for adoption. 

If she didn’t, she’d be kicked out—a single teenage mom with no income, no place to live, and cut off from all family. She dropped out of school and moved to a tiny town. When it was time to have the baby, the doctor put a curtain divider across her chest. He took the baby away before she could even see him. 

She moved back home, never returned to school, and a year later, my dad came back, and they got married. 

“I wanted to tell you, but it never felt like a good time, so I waited and waited. Then it seemed like I waited too long, and I lost the chance.” We were secretive, but we didn’t have secrets.

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