Gary Soto (1952 -)
My grandmother gave me bad advice and good advice
when I was in my early teens. For the bad advice, she said
that I should become a barber because they made good
money and listened to the radio all day. “Honey, they don’t work como burros,” she would say every time I visited her. She made the sound of donkeys braying. “Like that, honey!” For the good advice, she said that I should marry a Mexican
girl. “No Okies, hijo”—she would say— “Look, my son. He marry one and they fight every day about I don’t know
what and I don’t know what.” For her, everyone who wasn’t Mexican, black, or Asian were Okies. The French were Okies, the Italians in suits were Okies. When I asked about Jews,
whom I had read about, she asked for a picture. I rode
home on my bicycle and returned with a calendar depicting the important races of the world. “Pues si, son Okies tambien!” she said, nodding her head. She waved the calendar away and we went to the living room where she lectured me on the virtues of the Mexican girl: first, she could cook and, second, she acted like a woman, not a man, in her husband’s home. She said she would tell me about a third when I got a little older.
I asked my mother about it—becoming a barber and marrying Mexican. She was in the kitchen. Steam curled from a pot of boiling beans, the radio was on, looking as squat as a loaf of bread. “Well, if you want to be a barber— they say they make good money.” She slapped a round steak with a knife, her glasses slipping down with each strike. She stopped and looked up. “If you find a good Mexican girl, marry her of course.” She returned to slapping the meat and I went to the backyard where my brother and David King were sitting on the lawn feeling the inside of their cheeks.
“This is what girls feel like,” my brother said, rubbing the inside of his cheek. David put three fingers inside his mouth and scratched. I ignored them and climbed the back fence to see my best friend, Scott, a second-generation Okie. I called him and his mother pointed to the side of the house where his bedroom was a small aluminum trailer, the kind you gawk at when they’re flipped over on the freeway, wheels spinning in the air. I went around to find Scott pitching horseshoes.
I picked up a set of rusty ones and joined him. While we played, we talked about school and friends and record albums. The horseshoes scuffed up dirt, sometimes ringing the iron that threw out a meager shadow like a sundial. After three argued-over games, we pulled two oranges apiece from his tree and started down the alley still talking school and friends and record albums. We pulled more oranges from the alley and talked about who we would marry. “No offense, Scott,” I said, with an orange slice in my mouth, “but I would never marry an Okie.” We walked in step, almost touching, with a sled of shadows dragging behind us. “No offense, Gary,” Scott said, “but I would never marry a Mexican.” I looked at him: a fang of orange slice showed from his munching mouth. I didn’t think anything of it. He had his girl and I had mine. But our seventh-grade vision was the same: to marry, get jobs, buy cars and maybe a house if we had money left over.26 The Short Story We talked about our future lives until, to our surprise, we were on the downtown mall, two miles from home. We bought a bag of popcorn at Penneys and sat on a bench near the fountain watching Mexican and Okie girls pass. “That one’s mine,” I pointed with my chin when a girl with eyebrows arched into black rainbows ambled by. “She’s cute,” Scott said about a girl with yellow hair and a mouthful of gum. We dreamed aloud, our chins busy pointing out girls. We agreed that we couldn’t wait to become men and lift them onto our laps.
But the woman I married was not Mexican but Japanese. It was a surprise to me. For years, I went about wide-eyed in my search for the brown girl in a white dress at a dance. I searched...