Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

The coins accumulated in my paper cup. For fifty cents you could rent one of their blankets for one night and climb the ladder to the loft and sleep on one of the mats laid out in rows. (Twice, when white people came, they hurried a number of us up the ladder to hide.) The boss woman opened a small market in the corner of the building at the end of the day. With our quarters we could buy used clothes, rice cakes, canned fish, fruits. I bought a t-shirt and loose shorts. As I rolled up the brown towel, I had the odd thought that the monkey might not know me without it. Had his own luck persisted? Was he still skittering over the sides and ropes and decks of the ship? Did the monkey study, as I did, how he could be of use?

The large building was built of corrugated metal that rattled when the wind blew. There were no windows cut into the metal; instead, light shone from the uppermost gap between the roof and the walls. The gap was covered with chicken wire to prevent birds from flying through, and because of the height, the long bars of light fell to the opposite sides of the room, leaving the middle interior in a gray light.

The boss woman saw that I was good with the weaving, and she wanted me to make a new item, a lampshade. She showed me a pattern that did not look right to me, so I borrowed the pencil she kept over her ear and drew on the table a solution to the problem of the shade.

Then I asked her to watch as I drew a picture of the work room with all the tables moved close to the far walls, instead of the center. I didn’t know how to draw the sunlight, but I walked over to the wall so she could see the light shining across my chest. They moved our table first. Eventually they moved the others, too.

She gave me photographs of other objects to draw plans for. Sometimes she took me to a garden shop owned by white people, where the customers came to buy the things we made but also had ideas for special things they wanted made.

When we left the building that first time, I saw the land around us—cement everywhere, with palm trees jutting out of the pavement and the buildings made of metal or concrete in pastel colors. The long metal containers that you see stacked on the ships or on the beds of trains and the backs of trucks were everywhere, row upon row of them over the planes of cement leading out to the ocean. White metal towers with cranes could lift whole ships out of the water. I didn’t know the name yet, but this was the Port of Oakland.

The boss woman entered an angled road and roared the car forward fast into a broad, rushing river of cars. She looked straight ahead, as if everything around us was not worth notice. After we left the monstrous road, we passed glass windows that held headless bodies wearing clothes, a building with a sausage in a roll on top, a shop with a large ice cream cone painted on its wall. We turned down a shady street with no shops, and then arrived at the garden shop, which was surrounded by small trees and bushes and sculptures and pretty benches.

Mary LaChapelle is author of House of Heroes and Other Stories and recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter, PEN/Nelson Algren and Whiting Foundation Awards, as well as fellowships from NYFA, Hedgebrook, Edward Albee and Bush foundations. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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