Hello from the Dogpatch! Today we’re talking about “The Mission,” a story from Laurel Leigh’s ongoing Shoeless collection. In this story, two sisters both define and defy their daily struggles to survive when they head to San Francisco’s Mission District, hoping to get days-old Roma tomatoes at a grocery giveaway so they can cook a special 4th of July meal. This story was inspired by Laurel’s experience volunteering at a food bank. You can find the full story in Volume 12 of Clover, A Literary Rag. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!
If you’re in Whatcom County, Washington, on February 12, Laurel Leigh will be reading from “The Mission” as part of the biannual Clover reading event at Village Books. You can submit to Clover here.
Thursday morning, Celeste put on her good dress, her one pair of heels, and did up her hair. It was her day off and an outing, even if it was just going back to the Mission District, where she worked most days anyway, but on Thursdays it was for the grocery giveaway that only some people knew about – although more had been showing up each week – and sometimes the actual grocery store (not today though, on account of Mrs. J). She and Cel had talked about whether there would be enough gas for both the giveaway and Mrs. J’s house and decided not to risk it. It was sixteen miles round trip to get to the market where the owner gave away the didn’t-sell foods each week before his trucks came to restock the shelves. Adding on Mrs. J’s would mean two more miles each way – it wasn’t so much the distance but all the time in city traffic that burned up gas – and knowing Mrs. J, she’d find another reason not to pay until next week.They had set out two cans of green beans and one cream corn to bring along and trade with old Miss Florence, who didn’t eat fruit, so they would most likely have extra apples or soft bananas, which could usually be counted on, but it was tomatoes they wanted today – Roma tomatoes. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and Celeste planned to make baked lasagna with ricotta cheese and Roma tomatoes layered over. It had been their grandmother’s specialty, every year on the Fourth and once for Celeste’s eighth birthday. Celeste had saved up the rest of the ingredients, including some McCormick’s Italian seasoning; all that was needed was the tomatoes. Canned could be used for the topping, but there was nothing like plum Roma tomatoes. Most would use a Roma for canning or a sauce, but Grandma had known the secret of bathing them in garlic and layering them over lasagna. Of course, it was a gamble that there would be any tomatoes today, even week-old Heirlooms, but Celeste couldn’t help but hope. The market sold Romas out the front door so they were always a possibility for giveaways. Only two were needed; if there were four, they could go in a salad. They planned to make the lasagna in the morning, then Celeste had two houses to clean but would be back by six, in plenty of time to pack up the rest of the picnic and get down to the pier to watch the fireworks light up the bay.
Sooooo, Laurel, dahling. This story is going to be a great addition to the Shoeless collection. It contains such quiet despair, despair that grips so many who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. I LOVE the quote: “Cel looked stricken, like she’d cry but didn’t want to spare the moisture…” Wow. These two women have nothing left. They can’t even waste their tears. The same with the imagery of the juice from the tomatoes, bleeding through the fabric of Celeste’s skirt and onto the pavement. They are being bled dry. Watching these two women try to put together enough money to get across town for free food handouts, only to find their efforts thwarted at every turn, is so painful. Painful in a good way. Because it feels real. The scenes with the ice cream and the boyfriend who’s a GG bridge painter add so much to show their desperation. You have done your job well. For the opening paragraph, you may want to take a look at Alice Munro’s stellar work in the way she deals with brief flashback intrusions. She’s the master of giving the reader just enough background detail without losing our footing in the present. The vast majority of my comments are about location details. San Francisco’s size is contained to a few square miles, so I think you need to get a map from 1969 and decide exactly where these two women live and where they have to go to work and get food. Now, the SF of that time period was one dependent on buses since BART was just being constructed. So specific details such as bus schedules, daytime temps, etc. will finish out what is already a fine story. Oh, and I’m not sure that people would want their houses cleaned on the 4th of July. Wouldn’t they be busy having BBQs with lots of people hanging out? But that may just be me. Keep on keepin’ on! Well done!
‘The Mission’ is the story of two sisters struggling to make ends meet in 1960s San Francisco. Celeste, the older sister, wants to make lasagna for 4th of July, her grandmother’s recipe, but can only manage to assemble all the ingredients for the recipe by going to a weekly, charitable give-away at a grocery store on the other side of town in the Mission District.
I once heard it said that all it takes to make a good story is to chase your hero up a tree and throw rocks at her. You throw an awful lot of rocks at Celeste.
And while the stakes in the story might seem small — a few, fresh Roma tomatoes are all that Celeste desires — you do such an expert job raising the stakes, and the tension, that by the end this reader was so fully invested in whether these two sisters were ever going to manage to get their groceries home, I thought my head was going to explode.
You do a fine job laying out Celeste’s plans for getting to and from the market where they hold the food give-away. Her plans are sensible, no-nonsense, and highly detailed, which makes the world of the story feel lived-in and true. I can think of no higher compliment for a work of fiction.
But I would like to talk a little about the time and place in which you set your story. Near the end of the piece you tell us it’s 1969. I don’t need to tell you this was a time of incredible political instability and foment. None of this comes through in the story. Neither did I ever figure out, until you told me, that the two sisters in the story were African-American. Given that the piece is set in the Mission, I assumed they were Hispanic.
Two African-American sisters living in late-1960s San Francisco would have been awash in social instability and revolutionary sentiment. The two sisters seem a little too mature for that sort of thing, but it was everywhere in the air. I think they might drop at least a few asides about what it going on in the streets around them, since it would have been impossible to avoid.
As for your setting, San Francisco in July — I don’t think I need to quote you that apocryphal bit about how cold it is in S.F. in the summer, the one that’s usually attributed to Mark Twain. The heat of the day actually plays a small role in your story; you might need to rethink this.
And as a final note, having two sisters with names like Celeste and Celia seems almost cruel. The names sound much alike — not to mention their nicknames, Cel and C — that my head was all a-muddle by the end.
Otherwise, a terrific story. Simple and elegant and true. Good job!